This article was first published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Nashville is growing, and so are its piles of trash.
The Middle Point Landfill in Murfreesboro collects most of the solid waste in Middle Tennessee, but it could be full by the end of the decade, sending Nashville and other communities scrambling for a place to put their garbage.
Republic Services, one of the largest waste management companies in the country, owns the Murfreesboro landfill and wants to expand it by nearly 100 acres, extending its life by decades. But neighbors and local elected officials are almost uniformly opposed to the expansion, and the city is suing the company over claims that the landfill is contaminating air and water.
This is not an unusual challenge. The number of active landfills in the United States has decreased steadily in recent decades, and those that remain are not being expanded.
An increasing number of states see an answer in an innovative regulation that tackles trash on the front end, incentivizing manufacturers to make their product packaging more easily recyclable or else pay to recycle it on the back end. The laws — known collectively as extended producer responsibility, or EPR — could, some experts say, be a partial solution to the problem of diminishing landfill capacity.
The main target is plastics pollution. A study released last month by Greenpeace USA, an environmental advocacy group, found that the United States recycled only 5 to 6 percent of its plastic waste last year, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014 and 8.7 percent in 2018.
In the past two years, four states — California, Colorado, Maine and Oregon — have enacted EPR laws, and at least a dozen other states, including Tennessee, have considered EPR bills.
Scott Cassel, founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, a nonprofit that has pushed extended producer responsibility legislation around the country, says fast-filling landfills such as Middle Point are driving the effort, along with the overall environmental benefits of reducing the emissions and waste that come from producing plastic packaging.
EPR laws are increasingly common in Europe and Canada, and Cassel hopes recent state legislative action will bring a significant change to waste management in the United States.
Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed the nation’s first EPR law in July 2021. The Maine measure, which takes effect in 2026, doesn’t ban any type of packaging. Instead, it levies a fee on producers based on their packaging choices and the net amount of packaging they sell in the state. The law defines a producer as the brand owner of a packaged product or, if the brand is from overseas, the importer of the product into Maine.
Producers will pay a higher fee for packaging that is toxic and a lower fee for packaging that is readily recyclable. The money will be funneled into a fund, operated by an outside “stewardship organization” selected by the state, to be distributed to local governments for waste management and recycling.
Oregon’s law, enacted a month after Maine’s, will require most producers to join a so-called producer responsibility organization. Starting no later than 2025, Oregon municipal governments will use fees paid by the producers to upgrade recycling facilities, expand collection services and pay for contamination reduction programs.
The Colorado law requires companies that sell packaged products, paper products or foodware to cover the cost of a statewide system to recycle those materials. Like Oregon, Colorado will require producers to join an organization that will pay for and oversee the recycling program.
The California law also creates a mandatory producer responsibility organization and levies a fee on all single-use plastic packaging and plastic foodware. The money collected would go to the California Natural Resources Agency, CalRecycle and local governments. In the next decade, California expects to raise $5 billion from industry sources to help address plastics pollution. Ultimately, the state hopes to make all single-use packaging and foodware recyclable, reusable, refillable or compostable. Currently, about 85 percent of plastic waste in California ends up in landfills.
“Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts, everything from clogging our oceans to killing animals — contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat,” California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said in signing the bill.
Numerous environmental groups, including Californians Against Waste, the Nature Conservancy, Environment California, EnviroVoters and the Ocean Conservancy, praised the new law. But not all environmentalists were pleased.
Judith Enck, president of the nonprofit Beyond Plastics and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, criticized the California law because it “hands over almost total responsibility to the packaging industry — the very companies that have created the problem,” says Enck via email.
In general, environmental groups, waste management companies and municipalities supported the proposals in those four states, while producer groups such as the American Forest and Paper Association and the Flexible Packaging Association offered at least qualified opposition.
Abigail Sztein, director of government affairs for the American Forest and Paper Association, says variation is expected from state to state and that her organization “is most concerned about getting the policy right.” Specifically, she says, extended producer responsibility policies should not disrupt existing paper recycling programs, should provide credit for earlier investments made in recycling and should not require the paper industry “to subsidize other less-recycled materials.”
Even before California approved its broad EPR law, it applied similar rules to mattresses, mercury thermostats and carpet fibers.
Other states have also used EPR principles for some products. In Connecticut, for example, EPR policies apply to mattresses, electronics and a few other products. Cassel of the Product Stewardship Institute points to Connecticut as one of a handful of states where the prospects for a broad EPR law are brightest this year.
“A lot of what I do is important, but it’s small potatoes,” says Kim O’Rourke, who’s been the recycling coordinator in Middletown, Conn., for three decades. “I want to do something impactful, and EPR for packaging would be.
“Our municipal governments are scrambling to try to handle waste and recycling,” O’Rourke continues. “It’s more expensive, more complicated and harder to manage. Producers need to come in and take responsibility for the waste that they’re generating.”
Earlier this year, Tennessee state Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Democrat, worked with the state chapter of the Sierra Club on an extended producer responsibility bill, which they plan to refine before she reintroduces it next year. The proposal likely will require every Tennessee producer who uses packaging to join a producer responsibility organization.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation would oversee it, and a board of waste management industry representatives, environmental justice advocates or other stakeholders would serve as advisers.
The powerful Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry will closely watch the legislative push. Chamber president and CEO Bradley Jackson says his organization has been watching extended producer responsibility proposals in other states and recognizes that fast-filling landfills are a problem for his members.
“Tennessee really needs to look at the issue overall as a state to figure out how we work to address this,” Jackson says.
Dan Firth of the Sierra Club, who is working with Campbell on the bill, says the goal was to take “a less regulatory approach than some other states might take,” in part to assuage pro-business legislators in the Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature.
The producers would pay into the program, with their payments reduced if they prove they are using less packaging or more easily recycled packaging. The funds would then be disbursed to municipal governments and other entities that handle waste so they can buy advanced recycling technology and improve their procedures.
“We have no dreams at this point that this is going to happen overnight,” says Scott Banbury, a lobbyist and conservation program coordinator for the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s going to be a multiyear process.”