Written by Sofia Del Aguila, B.A., American University
From bottled water to pens and pencils, an astounding amount of the everyday products we use come in plastic packaging. In fact, the US produces over 14 million tons of plastic packaging each year. Virginia has taken a major step in addressing this waste issue by starting to phase out single-use plastic. After the 2020 General Assembly, Virginia’s counties and cities were allowed to adopt disposable plastic bag taxes. At the upcoming 2022 General Assembly session, Virginia’s legislators have an opportunity to continue this progress.
Despite widespread community recycling efforts, a majority of plastic packaging goes to waste. Not all hope is lost, though. A policy approach called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) could be just what the US needs to revamp plastic recycling– or eliminate the need for it altogether.
In 2018, only 13.6 percent of our plastic packaging was recycled. Out of the seven types of plastics, six of them are recyclable. However, this doesn’t mean that they will be recycled. Not all plastics are created equal. Plastic type 3 (PVC) contains harsh chemicals and cannot be recycled. Plastic types 4-7, known as ‘mixed plastics,’ are used to make a variety of products, from grocery bags to CDs. These plastics are rarely recycled due to difficulty and cost. The most commonly recycled plastics are type 1 (PET) and type 2 (HDPE), which are used to make bottles and other containers. Despite being the easiest plastics to recycle, less than one-fourth of PET and one-sixth of HDPE packaging is recycled.
Creating an effective recycling program that can handle plastic waste of this magnitude simply requires too many resources. For decades, the US exported as much as 700,000 tons of plastic each year to China before they banned nearly all trash imports in 2018. Without a market for recycled plastic, the nearly 20,000 municipalities in the US have had to cover recycling costs or just discard the excess. Because the cost of recycling outweighs the cost of incinerating trash or dumping it in a landfill, most have opted for the latter.
EPR offers a solution that would discourage plastic production and help fund recycling programs by holding plastic producers accountable. This policy approach would make plastic producers responsible for funding a portion of recycling costs based on the amount of plastic they produce. This would relieve municipalities from the financial burden of recycling and increase recycling rates. Not only would EPR make recycling easier, but it would encourage plastic producers to consider the environmental impact of their products. In the long run, EPR could result in packaging that is reusable, reducing the need for recycling in the first place.
While implementing EPR for plastic recycling is a huge step, it comes with low risk and high support. A majority of Americans believe that plastic producers should help fund recycling programs. Many states already have successful EPR programs for recycling products like batteries and paint. Although some pushback can be expected, many plastic producers are on board with the idea of EPR. The World Wildlife Fund and the American Beverage Association have collaborated to develop EPR principles, despite their very different missions.
Earlier this year, Maine and Oregon became the first states to implement EPR laws for plastic packaging. While each state’s approach is slightly different, they both require producers to take responsibility for recycling plastic packaging and other products. So far, five other states have proposed EPR laws that would impact plastic packaging producers.
Our current system of recycling is no match for the massive amount of plastic packaging produced in the US. Despite being one of the top producers of plastic pollution, recycling rates have declined in the US. Plastic pollution poses a major threat to both human health and the environment. As some states begin to implement EPR laws, we need our legislators here in Virginia to prioritize reducing plastic waste by working towards a true circular economy for the safety of our health and the health of our environment.
Sofia Del Aguila, B.A., American University
Sofia produces written content for her internship at Environment Virginia. A current Public Health student at American University, Sofia is passionate about improving the health of people and the environment. Sofia lives in Arlington, Virginia where she enjoys hiking, baking, and spending quality time with her bird.
State Director, Environment Virginia
A former canvass director and organizer with Impact, Elly now directs Environment Virginia's efforts to promote clean air, clean water and open spaces in Virginia. Elly lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she enjoys gardening, photography, hiking and rollerblading with her dog.