EPR still top recycling issue for state policymakers, but plastics and repair laws also on the horizon

State legislators are already hard at work crafting and introducing numerous recycling-related policies in 2023, which some advocates say are critical to accomplishing looming recycling and diversion goals.

Extended producer responsibility programs for packaging and other materials are once again a top priority for many states, and each year it has become increasingly common to see bills introduced. In 2023, more states are expected to introduce EPR bills that are also a vehicle for promoting larger circular economy strategies, such as recycled content mandates.

The debate over chemical recycling, also known by the plastics industry as advanced recycling, will continue to play out in state legislatures this year as conversations about how to handle waste diversion and recycling goals heat up.

A longstanding push to pass right-to-repair laws, which recyclers see as a key to keeping e-scrap from disposal, could also have its moment in 2023. States are also expected to handle more typical recycling policy items, such as bottle bill updates, debates about how to label products as recyclable, and how to reduce single-use plastic.

Focus on state actions is even more acute in 2023 because of general disappointment among recycling advocates in the federal government’s limited action on recycling efforts. The newly sworn in 118th Congress is divided, adding more uncertainty to the mix. Yet some recycling advocates are optimistic that the numerous recycling bills introduced last year, including two recycling bills widely applauded by the waste and recycling industry, will lay the groundwork for continued momentum in 2023.

“Recycling is generally seen as a bipartisan issue” in Congress, which could help renew interest in the issues this year, said David Biderman, CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

EPR proposals will get more nuanced and complex

States like Washington, Tennessee other New Jersey have already introduced EPR for packaging bills in January and numerous other states plan to introduce their bills soon.

The difference this year is that states are expected to pursue more types of EPR bills that tackle the nuances of the state’s wider waste management picture, not just the mechanics of producer responsibility, said Kate Bailey, chief policy director at the Association of Plastics Recyclers. “These policies have to be built around an understanding of local infrastructure,” she said during Waste Dive’s recent recycling webinar.

California last year passed SB 54, which established EPR for packaging but also set up extensive recycling and reduction rate targets. States like Connecticut and Washington named the state as an influence over their own “EPR-plus” policies.

Washington’s proposed WRAP Act would enact EPR for packaging and printed paper, but also establish recycling and reuse targets, enforce “truthful labeling” of recyclable products, and require scaled levels of postconsumer recycled content for certain packaging. It also would add a bottle bill program with a 10-cent deposit for a range of containers.

Connecticut is also expected to introduce EPR for packaging in the next few weeks, along with other initiatives requiring minimum postconsumer recycled content standards.

“Packaging is obviously on everyone’s mind,” but states like Connecticut and others are starting to see how connecting multiple waste management principles will lead to better long-term solutions, said Tom Metzner, an environmental analyst with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

Yet the same legislative hurdles as years past – competing stakeholder priorities, concerns about costs and disagreements about how much control producers should have over the program – won’t go away anytime soon, said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a main supporter of the WRAP Act. In Washington, haulers worry about how possible EPR bills could affect their facility investments, and municipalities and MRFs wonder how changes could affect their contracts. “The biggie is really the control and the ‘push me, pull you’ between the producers and the waste industry and all the other players. So that’s a really, really big factor,” she said during the Waste Dive webinar.

Terry Webber, vice president of industry affairs for the American Forest & Paper Association, said stakeholder engagement on EPR bills could make or break legislation. AF&PA plans to be an “active participant” in EPR for packaging discussions because of the potential for such laws to affect packaging costs and material flows.

The Illinois Recycling Foundation expects an EPR for packaging bill to be introduced at some point during the session, and several counties in Minnesota are working with the Product Stewardship Institute to introduce a bill sometime in 2023. Webber anticipates under-the-radar bills will pop up unexpectedly throughout the year, too. “There’s always a state that surprises us,” he said.

High-profile support from state governors like Connecticut’s will play a role again this year, but such support isn’t a guaranteed win. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced she plan to introduce EPR for packaging legislation for the second time after efforts to pass versions of the policy through the state budget and the legislative process failed in 2022.

Patrick McLellan, policy director of the New York League of Conservation Voters said in an email that the state should go beyond EPR to also mate broader bottle bill fixes and waste reduction tactics. “The state [must] develop a range of short, medium, and long-term options to fix the recycling market,” he said.

Chemical recycling could factor more heavily into recycling legislation

Chemical recycling is growing presence in the broader conversation about how states should boost recycling markets, divert waste or reach recycling goals. Chemical recycling will be more frequently included in recycling and waste legislation in coming years.

Michael Alaimo, director of environmental and energy affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, added that chemical recycling is a “need-to-have” conversation when states propose new recycling laws. “Chemical recycling is going to be a key component to increasing recycling rates and making sure plastic materials are able to be recycled,” he said, but arguments about chemical recycling’s impact on the environment — and what he considers “misunderstandings” about the role chemical recycling should play at all — could halt progress on bills.

Michigan’s governor signed a bill package in late 2022 designed to overhaul the state’s waste management priorities. The late-game introduction of a chemical recycling provision was such a destabilizing force that it nearly killed the entire bill package, said Matt Flechter, market development recycling specialist for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

The provision reclassifies chemical recycling as manufacturing instead of solid waste operations. The American Chemistry Council has helped pass such laws in more than 20 states, including recently in Mississippi and West Virginiaand will likely continue its work on such bills.

Though Michigan’s bill package has since become law, Flechter said it’s a lesson for future legislators. “I’m sure other states are wondering how [chemical recycling] could play into their own policy discussions now,” he said.

Bailey says the chemical recycling debate is overshadowing more immediate recycling concerns, such as how to more effectively collect and process materials such as PET. “There is a need for new innovation in plastics recycling. However, [chemical recycling is] taking up too much room air in the room,” she said during the Waste Dive webinar. “Our short-term focus needs to be on mechanically recycling and collecting more of the plastics we know how to recycle today.”

New York’s carpet EPR law, signed into law in late 2022, is another example. The law specifies that chemical recycling is not considered a valid recycling method for carpet, but Gov. college tried unsuccessfully to reverse that provision.

Right to repair to gain momentum

The success of one major right-to-repair bill in New York could signal more bills than ever coming out of the woodwork in 2023. Proponents say right-to-repair legislation is a significant way to keep electronics in rotation longer, preventing e- scrap from disposal that can cause battery-related fires or pollution.

New York Gov. Hochul signed right-to-repair legislation for some cell phones and laptops in late December, allowing the public and e-scrap refurbishers to more easily fix electronics. It’s a move advocates celebrated despite the bill text being whittled down significantly.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair company iFixit, expects at least 20 states to introduce their own legislation in 2023 that “will likely be specialized” to target specific types of electronics. Oregon already introduced a bill for consumer electronics, while Maine’s targets vehicle diagnostic systems. Washington’s would act appliances.

Nathan Proctor, US PIRG’s senior right to repair campaign director, told the House Rules Committee last year that about 416,000 cell phones are thrown away every day. Although a federal right-to-repair law could help, state-by-state actions can have an added effect.

The Biden administration and Federal Trade Commission have also suggested support in recent months, which supporters say has galvanized the movement further. Still, the movement faces major pushback from electronics manufacturers and trade groups.