By Liz Nass
Some state legislatures nationally are searching for ways to impose accountability for waste onto their manufacturing operations. Some environmental groups and lawmakers say Michigan should follow their lead.
Producer responsibility proposals are one potential solution discussed across the country as a way to hold manufacturers responsible for the “end-of-life” of their products when consumers are done with them.
Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, as a way to hold businesses accountable, would add the estimated environmental costs of creating a product to either its market price or directly to the manufacturer’s expenses.
Four states – California, Oregon, Maine and Colorado – have adopted a form of EPR for the packaging industry where businesses would fund the handling of the waste from product packaging. California will also require all product packaging to be compostable or recyclable by 2032.
“Extended producer responsibility makes it possible to shift that burden back onto producers who have the means to manage the finances of assuring that we can pull valuable materials out of the waste stream and put them back productively into the economy,” said Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, an industry group.
However, manufacturing and business groups of Michigan say they are worried about companies and jobs being driven out of the state if EPR is established.
“We, as an organization, always look at policies as to how this makes us competitive in attracting and maintaining businesses in our state when we’re talking about competing with other states or other countries,” said Caroline Liethen, the director of environmental and regulatory policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
“So, to the extent that you’re making it more expensive to operate in the state of Michigan, or make operating more litigious, that’s concerning,” Liethen said.
Liethen said she has recently heard talk of Michigan possibly adding more taxes on manufacturing to deter waste and increase financial responsibility.
However, Liethen said she feels that rules already on the books, such as standards for keeping operation areas clean, are enough to keep businesses in line with sustainable manufacturing practices.
Leithen said adding more requirements for businesses would also reduce job opportunities in the state and consumers would pay more for products they buy.
However, O’Brien said producer responsibility should not come at the expense of all consumers, only those who buy products that end up in waste systems.
That could sway consumers’ decisions about what products to buy and what companies to buy them from.
Liethen said the struggle is finding a balance between keeping a beautiful environment and having Michigan be a place “where you can support yourself and support your family.”
Mike Alaimo, the director of environmental and energy affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said that while EPR would curb negative environmental impacts, such a law would also limit what products a company might make.
Instead, Alaimo said he wants to see more implementation of the changes that the Legislature passed last year to update Michigan’s solid waste management policy, including a recycling requirement for counties and an overall state goal of a 45% recycling rate for all waste. The changes took effect in April.
Alaimo said those changes will also “broaden the scope of materials management” and connect local governments and businesses in working on waste management together without tax increases.
Samantha Pickering, the public and environmental health policy coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Council, is working on EPR legislation that she said would encourage consumers to shift away from using plastics.
“What we’re looking to do is have some accountability for the manufacturers willing to take it back,” Pickering said. “Maybe they have to use a certain percentage of post-consumer waste of recycled material to create new products and have less pressure on us as individuals, and start to hold corporations and manufacturers more responsible for everything that they produce.”
O’Brien said now is a good time to have these conversations because the state is looking to increase sustainability and the amount of recycling.
EPR would fall in line with those goals, she said.
“Our municipalities are already kind of burdened under the weight of a whole lot of responsibilities,” O’Brien said.
“Exploring EPR as a way to help cover the costs of providing these services, which aim at putting this captured raw material back to work in manufacturing, is ultimately a good thing we all want to work toward,” she said.