Recycling: Why Holding Manufacturers Accountable Won’t Work

Maine lawmakers decided in the summer of 2020 to pass a new law requiring manufacturers of plastic packaging to financially contribute to its recovery and recycling. Like other extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, this particular law is intended to hold manufacturers accountable to recycle what they create. Maine’s plan probably isn’t going to work as well as lawmakers are hoping for.

For the record, Oregon also enacted a similar law in 2020. Other states have their own laws currently in the pipeline. Lawmakers around the country say they have little recourse after 50 years of trying to change consumer habits. If consumers are not going to make a concerted effort to reduce waste, lawmakers will shift accountability to product manufacturers.

Footing the Entire Bill

The Treehugger website says that Maine currently spends as much a $17.5 million every year to dispose of packaging waste. Thanks to the new law, packaging manufacturers will now have to foot the entire bill. Treehugger isn’t clear about how the bill will ultimately be paid, but it says that similar recycling laws dealing with other types of products already exist in more than forty countries.

By contrast, Oregon’s law requires manufacturers to pay just 25% of the total bill. Does that mean Oregon’s law is inferior? That depends on who you ask. Either way, the real question is whether the two laws will have any meaningful impact on the amount of packaging waste that manufacturers produce.

Manufacturers are already required to contribute financially to electronic recycling. Has that reduced the volume of electronic gadgets manufacturers produce? No. Has it increased the volume of electronics that actually get recycled? No. All the law has done is alleviate some of the financial pressure municipalities face in their efforts to keep electronics out of landfills. In the end, the costs are passed on to consumers through higher prices.

Higher Prices of the Register

Seraphim Plastics, a Tennessee company that specializes in recycling commercial plastic waste, says one of the reasons consumer recycling is so unsuccessful is directly related to cost. Consumer recycling is expensive. It is far more expensive than purchasing virgin plastic. So companies would rather buy virgin plastic than recycled material.

They will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. There is no compelling reason for them to buy more expensive recycled plastics. They will contribute their portion to help pay the costs of plastic recovery, recycling, and disposal. They will turn around and pass that cost on to customers through higher prices at the register.

The linchpin holding it all altogether are consumers themselves. As long as they keep paying whatever prices are demanded at the retail level, manufacturers will have no motivation to reduce plastic waste.

Back to Consumer Behavior

In their post, Treehugger implied that manufacturers purposely avoided their own social responsibilities by deflecting the responsibility for recycling back on to consumers in the 70s and 80s. But they never made the case that it was ever a manufacturer’s responsibility to reduce waste or encourage recycling.

The post then went on to explain how Maine lawmakers want to shift responsibility back to manufacturers because they have been unsuccessful in changing consumer behavior. Therein lies the rub. When manufacturers start raising their prices to cover their portion of the recycling bill, consumers will ultimately have the final say.

Maine’s law is not likely to have as much of an impact as lawmakers are hoping for. It may have a minimal impact on plastic packaging waste, but it is mostly just going to raise prices at the cash register. Just wait and see.

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