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Zero Waste Legislation - What’s Next?

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

(adapted from post on the Clean Water Blog We All Live Downstream)

Right on the heels of New Jersey’s bag ban is a new bill (S2515) that would require manufacturers of rigid plastic containers, beverage containers, glass, and paper products to increase the percentage of post-consumer recycled content in their products. Post-consumer recycled content bills, like the one in NJ, are popping up across the country, along with bottle deposit bills, Right to Repair bills, bans and fees on plastics that are difficult to recycle, state procurement policies that prioritize recycled and reused products, and pay-as-you-throw programs.

While we cannot recycle our way out of the global plastic pollution crisis, these bills aim to improve recycling markets by creating a demand for and cleaner supply of recyclable materials than what recyclers and manufacturers currently have to work with - a contaminated mixture of all sorts of plastics and garbage that is really difficult to recycle into new products. These bills are an important step in stopping the production of virgin single-use plastics and keeping plastics out of polluting incinerators and landfills and the environment.

About a dozen states are considering extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills, another type of zero waste policy that often includes post-consumer recycled content standards. EPR policies come in many forms but generally aim to hold the producers of plastic and paper packaging responsible for the costs associated with managing waste so that these costs are not placed on municipalities and taxpayers. EPR bills often require producers to develop plans to finance local recycling programs and infrastructure, as well as incentivize redesign of packaging to be more readily recyclable, or better yet, avoided or reusable.

Successful versions of EPR policies already exist in the form of producer take-back for products like batteries and paint. However, unintended problems happen when private industry (even when acting through non-profit “producer responsibility organizations”) has control over what product stewardship plans look like and how funding is spent. For example, some industry-controlled EPR programs have opened up opportunities for incineration and chemical recycling, dangerous false solutions promoted by the chemical industry and big waste management corporations.

Alternative versions of EPR for packaging materials promote more democratic control by state and local governments over how much funds are needed and where they should be spent. The problem is that with about a dozen EPR bills in the works all over the country, the chemical industry and manufacturers are starting to realize EPR might happen whether they like it or not. Lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council and packaging industry are shifting toward supporting these corporate-controlled versions of EPR. With the support from these powerful groups or neutralized lack of opposition, these corporate versions of the bill are more likely to pass, giving control over the recycling industry to polluters.

Meanwhile, the chemical lobby is also pushing state legislatures across the country (including NJ) to promote “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, also known as gasification or pyrolysis, but more appropriately named plastics-to-fuel. These technologies take plastics and break them down into their chemical components to be burned as fossil fuels. This would eliminate any incentive to stop producing single-use plastics and to fix our existing recycling infrastructure.

While post-consumer recycled content and EPR are gaining momentum, there are many other statewide policies that can influence regional and national movement toward zero waste. States and local organizers should consider the following zero waste options:

  • Eliminate incineration and chemical recycling from any tax credits or subsidies relating to renewable energy or recycling.

  • Ban compostable organics from landfill or incineration.

  • Fund local zero waste systems that focus on reuse.

  • Turn off the plastic pollution tap by rejecting fossil fuel infrastructure projects that support the industry at the root of the problem.

Many of these ideas are already in the works in New Jersey and other states. Because solid waste tends to be regionally managed and has regional impacts, we are going to need coordinated efforts between states and regions in addition to local community-based solutions to get these over the finish line and to get out ahead of the chemical industry and other plastic polluters.

Learn more about Maura Toomey.

Graphic from Break Free from Plastic. Note: This image does not appear in the original article.


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