Our Recycling System is Broken. It’s Time for Plastic Producers to Take Responsibility.

Plastic water bottles

Most of the cheap plastic and paper packaging we throw in our recycling bins is perfect for using once but terrible for recycling. Photo: Mali Maeder via Pexels

Our recycling system is in a crisis. Last year, China stopped taking our recycling for processing, setting off a chain reaction of problems for the American recycling system. In New England and across the country, the cost of recycling for towns and cities is skyrocketing, forcing local governments to shift around their budgets, or worse, consider canceling their programs altogether.

But the current crisis has exposed fundamental problems with how we recycle – making it a chance to create a better system. It’s an opportunity to address the bigger issue: our homes and communities are constantly barraged by a flood of packaged materials, a flood that we can’t control. Today’s products and their packaging are often made from plastic and designed for disposal. The producers of those products have profited by making you and your environment pay for their polluting products.

As the true cost of our current system is exposed, we must hold paper and plastic producers responsible for the pollution they’re pumping into our communities.

China’s Ban has Exposed our Recycling System as Dysfunctional and Expensive

Most of the cheap plastic and paper packaging we throw in our recycling bins has little or no value compared with new materials. It’s perfect for using once and terrible for recycling.

For the past decade, U.S. recycling companies encouraged cities and towns to adopt recycling systems that mixed paper, plastic, glass, and metal. They reasoned this would make it easier for all of us to recycle if we had only one bin to worry about. They then shipped that mix to China, where underpaid Chinese workers laboriously sorted our waste to extract anything that could actually be recycled – the rest was dumped in a landfill. Chinese recycling processors benefited, U.S. residents felt environmentally responsible, and producers of packaging kept making money by churning out trash.

By refusing to take any more foreign waste starting last year, China reminded us that we were just exporting a problem, not solving it. Now, residents like you and me are paying the price. Cities and towns that used to get money back for their recycling are now paying several times that amount for their programs. In Stanford, Connecticut, the city’s recycling contract skyrocketed from a $95,000 surplus to a cost of $700,000 per year. Residents are having to pick up that enormous difference. Boston’s recycling is expected to increase from $35 to $150 a ton. Where I live in Worcester, Massachusetts, recycling costs are currently $78 a ton – $10 higher than trash disposal.

It’s not just the baseline cost of recycling programs. We got used to throwing many nonrecyclable items in the bin, which Chinese processors would then send to a landfill. Now, just a few of these items in a bale of recycling incur a fine from American processors. These contamination fees add to the already soaring cost of recycling. Worcester is now paying an additional $600,000 each year in these fees.

These budget changes are becoming the new normal, but they shouldn’t be. The producers of the millions of tons of plastic and paper packaging filling our oceans, landfills, and recycling bins have rigged the system, requiring your tax dollars to pay for their problem.

Recycling Should be Paid for by Producers, Not You

You shouldn’t have to pay for the cheaply produced plastic flooding your community. That’s why we’re working with local Departments of Public Works and in statehouses across New England to make sure that the producers cover the cost instead. Producer Responsibility follows the principle of “the polluter pays” – if their product harms the environment, they must bear their share of the cost.

This isn’t a new idea. Before the plastic age, producers took responsibility for collecting, cleaning, and refilling the containers that held their products. And while cheap, disposable plastic ended the old system, we still have buyback programs today for electronics, paint, batteries, and mattresses. These programs require the companies that make the products to pay for their collection and proper recycling.

We can apply the same idea to the packaging stream. In fact, companies like Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever are already funding similar programs in Canada, Europe, and Israel.

Producer Responsibility is Good for Your Budget and the Environment

Producer Responsibility requires the manufacturer, producer, importer, or online retailer to pay a fee per ton of packaging material they create. Those fees go to cities and towns to reimburse their recycling costs. The fee corresponds to how recyclable the product is – easily recyclable packaging would cost less, while difficult-to-recycle packaging would require a larger contribution by its producer. Producer Responsibility incorporates environmental costs into a company’s bottom line, making polluting bad for business and saving residents money on their taxes.

Help Us Fight for a Better Recycling System

We can make Producer Responsibility for packaging a reality in New England. The Massachusetts and Connecticut legislatures are considering Producer Responsibility bills this session. A resolution to develop such a program in Maine is also under consideration.

You can help call for Producer Responsibility. You’re already paying the cost for our broken system. Tell your legislators that you no longer want to subsidize the torrent of packaging pollution suffocating our oceans, rivers, highways, and communities. With your help, we can hold producers accountable.

Before you go... CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.