When Scott Cassel looks back on his career, the great milk jug crisis of 1997 stands as a pivotal moment.
In the ’90s, Cassel ran Massachusetts’ recycling and waste management programs, and one day local recycling officials began calling him in a frenzy. The HP Hood milk company had ditched its translucent gallon jugs for new opaque “LightBlock” bottles. Panic ensued. Clear plastic could be easily melted down and reused, and fetched 23 cents a pound from big recyclers. These new white jugs were worth far less, and were poised to upend carefully constructed municipal waste budgets. All because one company had changed its packaging.
“That was the first time I realized that the recycling system was broken,” Cassel said.
A quarter-century later, there’s a growing movement to fix it, with one of Massachusetts’ northern cousins leading the way. Maine Governor Janet Mills last week signed the nation’s first extended producer responsibility, or EPR, law, effectively holding corporations accountable for the packaging waste they create. Now, nearly a dozen states, including Massachusetts, are on track to follow Maine’s lead.
Think about it: A company that sells you a product — be it toothpaste or taco shells or dog food — determines how it’s packaged. Maybe it’s shipped in multiple boxes or sold in a plastic container that isn’t recyclable. Either way, once it’s tossed in the trash or recycling bin, it’s the responsibility of the municipal waste program to figure out where it goes next.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the US discarded 82.2 million tons of containers and packaging in 2018, which accounts for nearly one-third of all municipal solid waste that ends up in our trash and recycling bins. Since 2018, when China stopped buying US recyclables, finding a place for all that waste has become an increasingly costly endeavor.
There’s a massive climate impact, too. Because it’s often cheaper for companies to create more packaging than use recycled products, the production of every new bag, box, bottle, or jug releases more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
It’s an issue Cassel has been thinking about since the great milk jug meltdown. That episode eventually led him to team up with Gina McCarthy — currently President Biden’s national climate adviser — to launch the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute, a wonky, behind-the-scenes nonprofit fixated on addressing the country’s massive waste problems.
Over the past two decades, PSI has worked to help pass 123 laws holding producers of hazardous and bulky trash responsible for what they’ve made, creating programs for recycling things like paint cans, mattresses, electronics, and batteries in the process. The new law in Maine may be its biggest win yet.
“This will hopefully fundamentally change our recycling system in the US, and finally shift the onus on the large companies that have a say in the packaging of these products for being financially responsible for recycling them,” said Peter Blair, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project.
Soon, global giants like Amazon, Walmart, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble will be forced to track the type and amount of packaging they sell into Maine. They’ll then pay an annual fee covering the cost per ton of processing things like cardboard boxes, yogurt tubs, plastic bags, and other packaging that all end up in the waste stream. That’ll lighten the load on municipal recycling programs from Kittery to the Canadian border that today spend as much as $17.5 million a year to get rid of Maine’s packaging. Smaller businesses are exempt from the law, and some of the funds also go toward education efforts and infrastructure in the state.
Sarah Nichols, the Sustainable Maine program director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, considers the law “recycling reform” and says it arrives at a moment when the cost of recycling has risen dramatically in Maine and recycling rates have plummeted.
“It’s a total change in the status quo and how we approach this problem,” she said. “Our waste system contributes a significant amount to the total greenhouse gas emissions made in the making and transport of this stuff.”
More important, perhaps, is that it moves the responsibility from the public to the producer of the packaging.
“It helps to shift the paradigm, which for way too long has focused on the consumer and the consumer’s responsibility and lifestyle choices,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, who has been pushing for similar legislation in Massachusetts. “These huge manufacturers work to make it feel like it’s our fault as individuals and consumers that there’s a lot of waste, when really let’s turn the mirror around.”
And doing so may lead to changes in the way consumer goods are packaged. Extended producer responsibility laws have been in place for decades in some European countries and for 15 years in some Canadian provinces, and global brands have redesigned their packaging to comply. That’s why, in the EU, toothpaste doesn’t come in cardboard boxes and one reason companies like Colgate are launching recyclable tubes across the pond.
Recycling rates of packaging and paper products also have surged in Europe as a result of these laws, according to PSI, climbing from 19 percent in Ireland in 2000 to 65 percent in 2017; from 40 percent to 68 percent in Spain; and from 38 percent to 67 percent in Italy.
Charging producers for the waste they create shifts the economics of waste management programs, said Sydney Harris, policy and programs manager at PSI. The less waste companies put into the system, the less they’ll pay. Meanwhile, it creates a market for recycled goods where there wasn’t one before.
“Suddenly there are economic incentives to care about the stuff at the end of its life,” she said.
Some critics of these laws say they stand to raise the cost of consumer goods and disrupt supply chains. Industry groups say they’re open to the laws, “if they’re crafted with our vision,” as Dan Felton, executive director of the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, put it.
But Maine’s law, Felton said, puts the full cost of collection on producers; he thinks it should be shared. There’s been pushback in Maine on these issues from local business groups as well, and recently, Maine state Senator Rick Bennett said in a Facebook post that he anticipated corporate lobbyist groups would push for a public veto campaign.
But despite these challenges, momentum for such legislation is building, and extended producer responsibility laws are now in the works in nearly a dozen states, including Massachusetts. Oregon’s state Legislature approved an extended producer responsibility bill late last month, and it’s on the desk of Governor Kate Brown. Massachusetts state Representative Michael Day has sponsored a bill here.
“Producers are pumping in these cheap plastics that are nonrecyclable, and that, combined with the issue of China not accepting this waste anymore, you’re now seeing this skyrocketing of waste costs being passed along to our municipalities,” Day said. His proposed legislation tells companies, “If you’re producing this cheap nonrecyclable stuff, we’re not going to foot the bill.”
PSI has worked with municipal and environmental groups to help craft the bill that’s currently on Beacon Hill, Domenitz of MassPIRG said. She credited Cassel’s time working in state government as instrumental in his ability to help shape feasible public policy. “Scott comes from being in it up to his eyeballs, and they’ve been a very important resource.”
PSI has been doing this work since 2000, but it’s only in the past two years that interest in such programs has finally taken off in the US, Cassel said. Recently he’s been fielding calls from colleagues in Germany, which first introduced the concept of extended producer responsibility laws, asking him: “Is it really true?”
Having the US adopt extended producer responsibility policy will have a massive impact globally, forcing companies to do more to redesign their packaging and rethink their approach to creating waste, he said.
“This really is very big news, and it will be a thunderclap around the country and other countries as well,” Cassel said. “It’s a new day for recycling in the United States as far as I’m concerned.”