What will it take to change packaging recycling in the U.S.?

The recycling rate in the U.S. has been stuck in a rut, slowly inching up year by year, a signal that any major increases will need to be spurred by major actions.

Those on all sides of the issue may agree that changes need to be made to recycling systems, but a recent dustup over a trade group's position paper shows they're not seeing eye-to-eye on some ideas.

Take extended producer responsibility (EPR). It's the concept that makes those who produce items also responsible for funding (and sometimes also operating) recycling systems for those same items.

For brands it means added costs, but also incentives to use easily and readily recyclable material. For governments, it shifts away some waste disposal and recycling expenses. And for recyclers, it means possible changes to the way they operate as well as potential new or expanded material streams.

The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), a major player on the pro-EPR side, recently got a glimpse at a position paper by AMERIPEN, a packaging-focused trade group, and called out a number of statements in the paper as misleading or false. While AMERIPEN finalizes a report about recycling systems for packaging, it maintains its goal is to advance recycling improvements. That's the same aim of the PSI, although what seems to be missing from the debate is actual discussion and consensus.

More than half of the states already have a variety of EPR laws on the books covering products such as batteries, paint, thermostats, electronics and fluorescent lights. While some date back to the '90s, efforts to put EPR systems for packaging in place have developed more recently. The latest action has been taken in Rhode Island, where legislation has been introduced but is being held for further study.

The PSI has been working on packaging EPR for about five years, said CEO Scott Cassel, and was one of the first groups to try to involve the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The PSI has also sought to work with brand owners, state and local governments, and other stakeholders.

Since then, Cassel said, there have been a number of scattershot efforts by others. "While there have been and continue to be initiatives on this in the U.S.," he said, "they are all separate. They are all disparate efforts."

Next page: Companies' efforts to improve recycling