Among my great joys is an annual pilgrimage to the trout streams of Colorado. Last summer, the rivers were low, and fishing restrictions were in place to not further stress the fish. While walking the banks of the Roaring Fork, worrying about what climate change will mean for my favorite pastime, I found another unpleasant surprise: plastic bottles strewn along the bank.

Roger Ballentine

That was a double-whammy. Those bottles were despoiling Colorado’s natural beauty, and they will be replaced by new plastic bottles.

With proper recycling, these bottles would not be along the riverbank, and new bottles made from recycled ones would result in roughly a third of the greenhouse gas emissions of a virgin bottle. But recycling rates are stubbornly low and plastics are one of the fastest growing segments of our waste stream, currently making up more than 18%.

Nationally, we recycle almost a third of our waste, but the 2020 rate in Colorado was only about 10%. Before it banned the practice in 2018, China purchased one in three plastic bottles in our waste stream to feed its own recycling industry. That demand made post-consumer plastic more valuable and created incentives for it to be collected and sold. Without that demand, those incentives are lost and more plastic ends up in our environment.

The good news is that Colorado is considering legislation meant to boost the state’s recycling performance. The bad news is the bill pursues a sub-optimal solution to the problem.

HB 22-1355 would create a “Producer Responsibility Program for Statewide Recycling.” Such “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, policies rest on the idea that the companies that put plastic in the marketplace should be responsible for it through end of life. HB 22-1355 would place a fee on producers and use the money to cover the costs of implementing an EPR program, which would result in new funding to boost recycling programs.

The issue is not whether EPR is “fair” — it is — but whether it is the best way to solve the problem. It is not.

The record of EPR laws is mixed, at best. In Canada, for example, EPR policies have increased recycling program costs by roughly 26% while performance, measured by percentage of tons diverted from landfills, has increased only 1%.

Such a shortcoming reflects the fundamental flaw of EPR approaches: they do not directly address the single greatest problem facing the recycling industry: a lack of demand for waste to be recycled.

That’s where Minimum Recycled Content Standards, or MCS, come in. Under MCS policies, producers are required to increase the recyclable content of their packaging products and therefore must source and purchase recycled materials. As the percentages of required recycled content increases, these investments grow. As a result, suddenly-valuable post-consumer plastics find their way into recycling supply chains, greenhouse gases are reduced, new recycling jobs are created, and key steps toward a circular economy are made. 

California, New Jersey, and Washington each have recently adopted MCS laws with various phase-in timelines. MCS approaches have garnered a range of support from local environmental groups to industry, including the American Chemistry Council. Ocean Conservancy, a prominent organization at the forefront of plastics pollution, recently released a report calling for MCS as a key component of keeping plastic waste out of the environment. 

We need to focus our energy and political will on policy solutions that are achievable and effective. HB 22-1355, unfortunately, is not nearly as direct and effective a solution as simply increasing demand through a mandatory recycled content standard.

With mandated demand, today’s waste is tomorrow’s valuable product. The fishermen that proceeded me along the Roaring Fork most certainly would not have tossed dollar bills onto the bank of the river.

Roger Ballentine, of Bethesda, Md., is the President of Green Strategies, Inc. He served as Chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton.

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