The Road to EPR ‘Taxes’ Is Paved with Good Intentions
Rounding out Tuesday’s conference program at the 2023 ePS Connect was a keynote by Flexible Packaging Association president and CEO Alison Keane, who leveraged her quarter of century of experience as an environmental attorney in both the private and government sectors to bring clarity to the myriad of extended producer responsibility laws being implemented at a quick pace by states.
Keane, despite being a lawyer, left the legalese behind and spoke frankly to the audience about how U.S. policy, legislation, and regulations around sustainability are changing and why the industry should look deeper than the face value of these government initiatives.
First, Keane addressed the misconception that sustainability doesn’t matter to packaging converters and printers — noting that whenever FPA surveyed its membership that sustainability has always ranked in the five concerns and that the packaging printing and converting industry has a long history of working toward making both the packaging and the products being packaged (via using packaging to ensure less product is damaged and diverted to landfills) more sustainable. Given that history, one might reasonably expect that the industry and policymakers are on the same page.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Describing how many policymakers view packaging, Keane doesn’t mince words. “They see packaging as an add-on, as garbage, as the problem,” she said. This is even though food waste has been identified by the U.S. government — for years —as the top contributor to landfills. Additionally, Keane explained, food waste is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet, four states — California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon — have questionable EPR legislation on the books. “Starting with Maine — the first one to pass — it’s not EPR, it’s a tax,” Keane told the audience. “It’s a straight tax.”
EPR legislation is often promoted to voters as a method both to discourage environmentally damaging behavior but also as a potential revenue pipeline for innovating new and better sustainability practices. Keane explained that Maine’s legislation would be dedicated to financing the status quo versus investments in recycling, sortation, and processing infrastructure.
Furthermore, there are no exceptions made — no matter which market is served by the packaging. This legislation will directly affect packaging manufacturing for markets as essential as pharmaceutical and medical devices.
Other legislation is so lengthy and complex that it becomes ineffective. “Oregon’s, it was 151 pages,” Keane said. She explained to the audience that when a piece of legislation is more than 25 pages long that it no longer has the clarity to become a guideline for future behavior. “I used to say 10,” Keane quipped.
Colorado, Keane conceded, is “probably the best one that we’ve seen as far as a pure EPR system.” Yet, the legislation was the victim of politics. “It’s not thoughtful because it was literally put in about six weeks before sessions ended and rammed through and then onto the governor’s office,” Keane said. She explains that there isn’t much recycling infrastructure in Colorado — outside of Denver and Boulder — so there’s little ability for the EPR-generated revenue to effect positive change across statewide recycling programs.
Finally, Keane addressed California’s legislation, which Packaging Impressions has covered before, and again, explained that it’s “a straight tax — a tax on all plastic packaging or any portion thereof.” Some of the goals and timelines outlined in this legislation are beyond realistic. “They want to see pretty significant recycle rates — not recyclable but actually getting recycled,” Keane explained to the Connect audience. “They threw out some numbers that are pretty scary to us, especially 30% by 2028.” Keane emphasized that this recycled rate requirement again requires producers to comply with legislation when much of that recycled rate number depends on factors outside the producers’ control such as municipal collection, sorting, and processing of recyclable materials.
Keane emphasized that while better solutions for these EPR initiatives might not exist today that it is imperative that the packaging and printing professionals continue to watch and question sustainability initiatives as they move through state governments, work with associations such as the FPA to help develop better policies, and read beyond the description on a ballot when voting on their own state’s programs.