Extended Producer Responsibility: One Avenue Toward a Plastic Pollution Solution

by Alissa Oliverson, August 2020

Trash Talk Series from Sustainable Klamath, Solid Waste Action Committee (SWAC)

As plastic pollution continues to cause problems around the world, communities and nations are looking for a holistic solution, part of which could be holding producers responsible for the environmental impacts of their products. 

A new report by PEW suggests that if we continue business as usual and stay in a holding pattern with the current government and industry commitments to reducing plastic waste, by 2040 we will have reduced the amount of plastic in the oceans by only 7%. Worse yet, if we backslide on these commitments, the amount of plastic waste in the oceans could triple by 2040. But, if we take ambitious action now, invest in a new worldview and system, we can reduce plastic waste in the oceans by 80% by 2040. 

We have all heard the truth by now: it is impossible to recycle our way out of our plastic pollution problem. Massive shifts in overseas markets have put financial pressure on recycling systems, and new challenges arise every day with the ever-increasing volume of waste society produces. 

This reality has stimulated the awakening of people’s environmental consciousness, and it has created a space for a new conversation that demands real solutions to our plastic pollution problem. This does not mean we should give up on recycling, rather that we need to find viable ways to supplement recycling as we move toward the zero-waste pinnacle of sustainability. Enter: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). 

Originally proposed by Thomas Lindhqvist in a 1990 report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, Extended Producer Responsibility is a waste reduction strategy. It suggests that manufacturers and all entities in the product chain should bear a significant amount of responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products, from cradle to grave. 

With this new level of responsibility, EPR would naturally encourage innovation in product design to minimize negative impacts on human health and the environment at every stage. It would encourage the simplification and streamlining of products to make them more reusable and/or recyclable, and less costly. Ideally, EPR policies would make our linear “produce-use- dispose” system less wasteful and more efficient, more like a closed-loop, with the potential for new profits and new markets to emerge – markets that reflect the true environmental impacts of a product. Think of it this way: in providing better products and processes, producers can help fix the problems they created, prevent them in the future, and make better money. Everybody wins. 

We have already seen examples of Extended Producer Responsibility in action. Bottle Bills, like Oregon’s Bottle Drop, are one of the earliest forms of EPR. Electronic equipment take-back programs are another example. Dell has been taking back its obsolete electronics for free and recycling them since 2006. In the 1990’s, Nike launched their Reuse-A-Shoe program, which continues to this day, collecting used sneakers of any brand and turning them into material that can be, and has been used in a variety of ways. These and other examples of EPR may not be perfect, but they are valuable in promoting the necessary transition to a circular economy, which could be a huge part of the solution to our plastic pollution problem. 

As we begin to explore the potential of Extended Producer Responsibility, it is important to remember that this is about a shift in the way we think about people, planet, and profits. Current corporate objectives to maximize profits might not work with the environmental values necessary to clean up and prevent future messes. So, new, transparent policies will need to be created, and public oversight must be maintained. We will need to ensure that EPR policies don’t just allow a “pay to pollute” economic arena, wherein producers pay offset fees to continue their business-as-usual, manufacturing single-use and unnecessary plastic products. Consumers and producers alike will need to allow a new worldview to direct our best actions toward a zero- waste reality. 

We have all heard the truth by now: our plastic pollution problem is dire, and we must act now to mitigate the negative consequences. Downstream solutions like recycling are not the only answer. We must also look upstream, to the producers. We must demand that producers participate in our new paradigm where we put the environment first. They must innovate their products. Producers must work in harmony with nature to create environmentally responsible products, packaging, and practices that do not further harm our environment, but work with it long into the future – and help to heal the damage that has already been done. 

New EPR policies will no doubt be coming soon to our community, and as one avenue toward a plastic pollution solution, Extended Producer Responsibility is something we cannot afford to trivialize or ignore. 

If you would like to take action, you can visit our SWAC page and use our EPR form letter in an email to your representative or even to your favorite company/producer. To get involved locally, please contact us for more information.

Knowledge is Power… and so is Trash!

by Alissa Oliverson, February 2020

Trash Talk Series from Sustainable Klamath, Solid Waste Action Committee (SWAC)

Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), produced by the natural decomposition of your trash, is providing power to 3,000 homes in the Rogue Valley. In the future, it will also fuel an entire fleet of garbage trucks, and more…

As you may have learned in a previous Trash Talk segment, Klamath County is under a contract with Rogue Disposal and Recycling, which permits Rogue Disposal and Recycling to transport our trash to their Dry Creek Landfill in Jackson County. What you may not know is how Rogue Disposal and Recycling is putting all that waste to use.

Every day, an average of 90 tons of trash is transported from Klamath County to the Dry Creek Landfill in Eagle Point, where Rogue Disposal and Recycling has been working on a closed-loop plan for over a decade. 

“Closed-loop” is a term that refers to a system in which a business will reuse the same materials over and over again to create new products. It’s an increasingly popular business model that diverts materials from the landfill and streamlines production. But in this case, where the Dry Creek Landfill is the business and the trash in the landfill is the material, closed-loop refers to the disposal stage being fed back into the creation of a new product. And that new product is fuel.

When organic materials in solid waste decompose, they produce biogas – and that biogas can be used in many ways. Right now, the Dry Creek Landfill Gas-To-Energy Facility captures biogas from the landfill and uses generators to produce 3.2 megawatts of renewable electricity, which Rogue Disposal and Recycling sells to Pacific Corp., ultimately providing power to more than 3,000 homes in the Jackson County area, annually. 

In the future, Rogue Disposal and Recycling plans to do even more. They plan to refine their biogas into a high concentration of methane called Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), and eventually fuel their entire fleet of garbage trucks with it. 

Currently, the majority of their fleet is fueled by Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), which is derived from fossil fuels. The only difference between CNG and RNG is the source of the gas: CNG comes from fossil fuels extracted from beneath the earth’s surface, whereas RNG comes from the decomposition of organic matter. This means that any vehicle able to run on natural gas can take both CNG and RNG. This also means that, in regard to infrastructure, changes must be made to support CNG (or natural gas in general) before RNG can take over. 

By 2023, Rogue Disposal and Recycling projects that they will have achieved a large part of their closed-loop plan by having converted their entire fleet of garbage trucks to CNG. And eventually, they will fuel their natural gas-powered fleet exclusively with the RNG they produce in their own Gas-To-Energy Facility at the Dry Creek Landfill. The infrastructure innovations required to harvest, refine, and use RNG are projected to take about a decade to complete, but some of them can already be seen today. For example: Rogue Clean Fuels, part of the Rogue Waste family of companies, has built a CNG fueling station on Antelope Road that is open to the public, and it is accommodating a growing list of area companies that also use CNG to power their fleet vehicles.

Rogue Disposal and Recycling’s ultimate closed-loop solution stands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by recycling carbon that is already in the atmosphere; and with its ability to produce more than 2 million diesel-equivalent gallons per year, it also has the potential to fuel other clean-burning facilities and vehicles throughout Southern Oregon.

So, why is this important to us here in Klamath County? After all, Rogue Disposal and Recycling doesn’t pick up our curbside trash – we use Waste Management for that. And our homes are not receiving power from the Dry Creek Landfill Gas-To-Energy Facility. 

Knowing that your properly managed trash could legitimately provide power to your home, business, or vehicle in the future, all while helping to keep our air and environment clean for future generations, provide jobs, and replace problems with solutions is a huge deal! Rogue Disposal and Recycling’s mission can serve as a positive example for surrounding communities, like ours. 

While we want to recycle as much as we can, we should also remember that even when we can’t recycle something, we can still put it to good use by disposing of it properly. So, be sure to follow our local Waste Management guidelines for recycling, and when in doubt, throw it out. 

While you’re following guidelines and discovering the wonderful world of waste management, why not also take a walk once a week and help to beautify our community by picking up litter as you go? Not only will you support your own health with physical activity and build community pride, but by placing litter in appropriate trash cans, you’ll also be helping to make power at the Dry Creek Landfill and you’ll be supporting a future that is filled with positive possibilities for generations to come.

If you need more information on what can and cannot be recycled here in Klamath County, please refer to the SWAC page of our website: Solid Waste Action Committee.

And if you want more information about Rogue Disposal and Recycling, please refer to their website at: RogueDisposal.com.

Remember: knowledge is power… and so is trash!