Washington could get European-style recycling. Lobbyists are crazy about it – slog

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One of Recology’s garbage pits. Justin Sullivan / Employee of Getty Images

So there you are, holding an empty milk carton and staring at your kitchen bin and recycling bag, hoping for a clue.

They squeeze the milk carton a little. Looks like it’s paper on the outside, so it’s probably recyclable, right? But wait, does it have a foil liner on the inside? And what is the rule about the plastic spout? Do you need to cut out this part before recycling? The words “Please Recycle” are printed on the back, but does that mean please recycle THIS CONTAINER, or is that just a general philosophy?

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What the hell are you supposed to do with this thing and so many similar things? Why is it so difficult to dispose of rubbish? Isn’t there someone we can blame?

In fact, yes. In the US, manufacturers put food in complicated, hard-to-recycle packaging because those manufacturers don’t have to clean up after themselves—the taxpayers do.

“We as consumers are stuck with choices we never made,” said Senator Mona Das, sponsor of an invoice that would — hopefully — fix Washington’s lousy recycling rates by bringing us more in line with how things have worked in Europe and Canada for decades.

Lobbyists in the other Washington is not enthusiastic about this.

Senate Bill 5697 is complicated, but to boil it down to its essential innovation: Senator Das wants Washington to implement a system called “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR), a tried and tested system that has worked in many other countries, but only has recently done on a very limited scale in America.

Currently, Washington residents without an EPR are paying for garbage disposal — and that includes all that confusingly non-recyclable packaging we have in the US, like foil-lined soup boxes, foam meat trays, and refrigerated pop-open cookie tubes.

But eventually, if SB 5697 passes and we get EPR, it’s up to the makers of that packaging to pay into a common fund that manages all of their crazy packaging. The worse their products are for the environment, the more they pay.

In other words, manufacturers would be allowed to keep making dirty packaging, they would only be forced to clean up after themselves rather than forcing us to do so.

Heather Trim, CEO of Zero Waste Washington, sees this as a win-win situation. “It saves people a lot of money,” she says. “Instead of paying for recycling, producers pay for it.”

“Once you get companies to pay extra for something, they stop,” says Das.

But, as you can imagine, companies don’t like paying extra, and national lobby groups are pumping big bucks into Washington to try to stem Das’s bill. They’re clearly frightened: last week, a Senate committee heard public testimony on the bill, and in addition to a handful of state and local lobbyists, there were a sizable number of national organizations eager to air “concerns.”

To make matters worse, there are currently two very similar recycling invoices to be checked. SB 5697 is the strong EPR bill proposed by Das. But there is also SB 5658, a much weaker alternative proposed by Senator Derek Stanford. Stanford’s bill isn’t Poorly, necessarily – it would improve labels on packaging and require more plastic recycling. In fact, Das is also a co-sponsor of this bill as it is fairly benign. But their calculation goes much, much further.

(Among Stanford’s largest campaign workers in 2020 are various companies and organizations involved in the manufacture of packaging, including Anheuser Busch, the Washington Beer & Wine Distributors Association, the Washington Beverage Association, and the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association PAC. In contrast, Senator Das did not take money from any of these parties in her last campaign.)

So what would Das’s EPR bill actually change? Based on the implementation in other countries since the 1990s, companies would have a new incentive to produce packaging that is as clean as possible in order to save money.

But wait – what’s stopping manufacturers from continuing to make dirty packaging and passing the cost on to consumers? Well, yes, they could do that. But fortunately, EPRs turn out to have a relatively small impact on consumer costs compared to much larger factors like energy, labor, local taxes, and transportation. ONE Study in Oregon found that the average consumer impact was $0.0056 per item — half a cent. (And some items were actually cheaper.)

Das EPR legislation is a proposal that environmentally conscious consumers can easily support. At last week’s online hearing, 86 people signed up to support the bill; only eight were against, and two were neutral.

Among the supporters were many of the usual suspects: Washington Conservation constituents; Washington Environmental Council; Zero Waste Washington; Puget Soundkeeper; the Association of Washington Cities; The Seattle Aquarium; Seattle Public Utilities.

But in addition to these non-speaking attendees, a rogue gallery of polluters emerged to testify, either begging against the law or for a dilution — and interestingly, many of them were lobbyists who typically do business in this other Washington, DC.

Here are the Washington state groups that surfaced last week to try to stop the current EPR bill:

  • Washington Waste and Recycling Association
  • Food Association Northwest
  • Washington Food Industry Association
  • Washington Friends of Farms and Woods
  • waste connections
  • Republic Services Company
  • Pioneer recycling services
  • Washington Retail Association
  • Washington Recycling Development Center
  • Washington Hospitality Association
  • Washington Beverage Association
  • Association of Washington Newspaper Publishers
  • Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington
  • Association of Washington Business

And here are the national organizations in action:

  • Consumer Technology Association
  • Association of Household Appliance Manufacturers
  • Novolex
  • waste management
  • ecology
  • American Institute for Packaging and the Environment
  • Institute for Glass Packaging
  • American Coatings Association
  • Household and Commercial Products Association
  • American Chemistry Council

Not all of these industry groups are calling for the EPR plan to be abandoned – in fact, some have paid lip service to it idea while at the same time asking that it be watered down or questioning whether it is necessary.

The Washington Retail Association, for example, wants retailers to have more time to adapt to new guidelines, and they don’t want stores to be required to accept materials for recycling. Waste Connections wants more local control (although this has led to a patchwork of rules across the state).

“We’re already accomplishing a lot of what we want to accomplish with this bill,” said Heather Hansen, executive director of the Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, which represents farmers and other groups. However, their claim isn’t actually true — Washington’s recycling rate did decreased in recent years, household waste disposal costs have increased, and large parts of the state don’t even have access to recycling. Das’ bill would expand access and also ensure consistent rules for recycling, so a box would end up in the same bin no matter what city you’re in.

From the hearing, lobbyists know EPR is coming in some form, whether they like it or not; and whatever happens to Washington, if it will likely be a model for the rest of the country. That is why they are now trying to reduce their responsibility as much as possible.

But when polluters thrive, it means more of the status quo: stagnant recycling rates, confusing rules about what goes where, and more trash going to landfill — or worse, floating around in the environment for future generations to clean up.

“The millennials, the zoomers, they’re the ones who are still holding the proverbial bag,” says Das.

But this bag is not really proverbial.

Alyssa Barton, policy manager at the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, noted that her organization often conducts beach cleans. “In this cleanup,” she said, “we’re finding a lot of … packaging that would be affected by this bill.”

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