Talking Point: EPR could get the R-E-S-P-E-C-T it deserves

Michael Dobie for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

Extended producer responsibility.

It’s a mouthful, and not a phrase that slides gracefully off the tongue. But it’s front and center for many environmentalists this year when it comes to state legislative action.

EPR, as it’s called, is a concept that forces manufacturers to pay the costs of recycling the products they make. For a region and state – and nation, for that matter – mired in a recycling crisis since China tightened drastically the recyclables it would accept, it could be a game-changer, according to advocates.

"We believe that if we’re going to address the solid waste management crisis, EPR needs to be a shining part of the solution," Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito told The Point during a Zoom call Wednesday with activists pushing New York to adopt EPR.

Bills from Long Islanders Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemb. Steve Englebright apply the concept to packaging and printed paper, which make up 40% of municipal solid waste. The idea is that if you make the plastic packaging encasing the toy, for example, you pay the cost of disposing/recycling it – saving taxpayers money since municipalities would no longer have to foot that expense.

And the hope is that companies change their practices to pay smaller fees, by reducing packaging or switching to more easily recyclable materials. Think of smaller cereal boxes that more closely match the bag inside, cardboard for egg cartons instead of Styrofoam, and yogurt containers made of No.5 (polypropylene) plastic, for which there is a recycling market, instead of No.6 (polystyrene), for which there is not.

New York State already has forms of EPR for rechargeable batteries, electronic waste and, soon to be implemented, paint and pharmaceutical takebacks. Nine other states are working together on similar legislation, and EPR has been in place for years in Europe and Canada.

"From an industry perspective, a lot of brand owners are realizing opposing EPR is not a strategy for success," said Andrew Radin, director of recycling in upstate Onondaga County and chairman of the board of directors of the New York Product Stewardship Council. "It has tremendous support across the state."

Of course, that’s no guarantee of success in Albany. But the stars might be aligning, with strong support in both chambers and some indications that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo likes the concept. There are a lot of details in the bills to be worked out and Kaminsky and Englebright need to agree on the language before EPR becomes state law, whether in the budget or standalone legislation.

But advocates are brimming with hope.

"Producers of packaging and the waste management industry have come to the table and want to be part of the solution," said Scott Cassel, chief executive of the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute who is helping with New York’s initiative. "They’re coming late to the party but they’re coming along. That to me is the biggest source of optimism."