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We Need a Better Way to Manage Plastic Waste, and EPR is a Solution

SC Johnson Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson Shared Our Company's Stance on Leading Recycling Policy in Albany Times Op-Ed

The fact that until recently the United States sold our plastic waste to China should have been the warning sign that that our approach to plastic waste in this country was inadequate.  The fact that plastic trash is now instead piling up in our landfills—never to degrade for many years—is the mounting crisis we ignore at our peril.  It’s a path that’s neither practical nor sustainable.  

Fortunately, states like New York are starting to act, in the form of an Extended Producer Responsibility bill that’s now working its way through the Legislature. 

New York’s legislation underscores the crux of the challenge: we don’t have the infrastructure or the means to address the growing heap of plastic waste in America.  We need a state-by-state improvement of the recycling infrastructure.  And the industries that produce products that end up in landfill should shoulder the cost to help fund and operate that infrastructure. 

As a CEO of one of those companies, I agree.  We need a better and more sustainable way to address waste.  As it stands, of the nearly 300 million tons of solid waste that we generate each year in this country, less than a quarter of it is recycled.  

New York systems are better than most. One recent report ranked New York among the top 10 states for recycling performance.  But if we are to solve this problem, an important part of the solution is greater regulation. Specifically, we need EPR regulation—where producers bear some responsibility for the cost and governance of the collection and recycling infrastructure—along with rules that encourage reduction, re-use, and recycling of materials.  A key benefit of the proposed New York legislation is that it helps do that. 

But what’s critical, as EPRs like New York’s are eventually advanced across the country, is that responsibility does not shift solely to producers, a scheme that some states have entertained.  If improvements and scale are our goals, which they must be, the incremental funding needs to go into improving the collection and recycling infrastructure—not alternative solutions that simply trade out one payer for another and preserve the status quo.  A system of shared responsibility that recognizes that we are all part of the challenge and solution is the most sustainable framework for progress. 

However, regulation alone won’t solve this problem. It will require significant innovation and technological advancements on the part of producers to make products that are more easily recycled, that include more recycled content, and that are more re-usable.

At the company I lead, we are already innovating in a number of ways to reduce waste: from increasing the use of PCR plastic in product packaging to encouraging the reuse of spray bottles by selling concentrate refills, which in turn uses 80 percent less plastic.  We also have a goal to make 100 percent of the plastic packaging in products recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. At the same time, we are currently leading industry with 18% PCR incorporated into our packaging.  Any legislation that incentivizes more of these types of actions—as New York’s bill does—is a good thing. 

Ultimately, solving the waste challenge will require building scale and technological improvements in recycling infrastructure over the long term to drive better economics.  And it will take actions that encourage more sustainable behavior on the part of people.  Businesses can innovate relentlessly, and build the best infrastructure, but ultimately what matters is the willingness of Americans to participate.

New York’s legislation provides a starting point on each of these fronts, beginning with more leadership, and ultimately funding, from industry.  

With a patchwork of different state-by-state approaches today, New York has an opportunity to create a model for the nation in terms of how we manage plastic waste—a feasible and comprehensive model that will yield substantial change at a time when it’s never been needed more.

H. Fisk Johnson is Chairman and CEO, and Chairman of the Board, of SC Johnson