Putting a Mark on the Circular Economy

What is extended producer responsibility and why should you care?

Across the manufacturing and packaging world, you can’t have a conversation about sustainability these days without hearing the terms circular economy and extended producer responsibility (EPR).

The concept of a circular economy is an aspirational goal – that every product has a way to be reused or recycled rather than being tossed into landfills or incinerators. It is affecting how manufacturers make important decisions about the design and materials used for products and packaging and how these things impact durability, reusability, recyclability of products. It also involves tracking via marking and coding through operations and supply chains for enabling reuse and recycling.

Marking enables traceability

Making major changes in company and consumer behavior is no easy task. It requires industry wide support and investments in hardware and software. Marking and coding plays a significant role behind the scenes to help manufacturers and packagers efficiently place the correct codes on products and packaging. Traceability codes and the use of information-rich 2D codes communicate key recycling information to consumers and across the supply chain.

Circular economy graphic.

What is EPR?

While the circular economy is the goal, EPR is both the carrot and the stick that are driving it.

On the incentive side, state EPR programs incentivize the design of products that are environmentally responsible. That is, products that are made from recycled materials and are themselves recyclable.

The stick is in the form of EPR laws that hold the manufacturers of products and packaging responsible for the entire life cycle of whatever they produce – from tires to electronics to consumer packaged goods.

So far, 33 U.S. states have some form of EPR legislation, spanning 18 different product categories. Materials like tires, batteries, and electronics, where there is both high volume and high potential toxicity, are often high on the list of legislators attempting to limit waste streams. Since many materials such as rubber compounds may look identical, the only way to consistently tell items apart is through the use of identification codes at every production stage.

Some states are also betting big on EPR packaging goals for consumer packaged goods. As of April 2023, six U.S. states have active EPR or similar laws that apply to product packaging, including California, Colorado, Maine, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington. For example, California’s packaging EPR law requires 100% of packaging in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032, according to a recent report from Source Intelligence on EPR.

How do EPR laws work?

Product identification is a key component of EPR laws and compliance. While laws vary by state and industry, in many cases manufacturers who fall short of legislated EPR goals can be charged fees for their use of non-recyclable materials – fees that help build out the recycling infrastructure. In some states, producers are required to fund the recycling systems for the materials they put into the market.

Is EPR effective?

Yes, EPR has proven successful across different industries around the globe. For example, let’s look at tires.

In Europe, where EPR has been in place since 1995, it has driven nearly 100% reuse, retread, and recycling of tires in some countries. Canada implemented a program in 2007 and has since achieved more than 84% recovery of tires while creating recycling jobs in Ontario and Manitoba, according to the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI).

In the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industry, EPR is driving innovation in packaging, from beer bottles to toothpaste tubes. The new form factors and materials are modern, design-forward, and recyclable. Consumers want them and feel good about using them, and brands are successfully using this to promote their sustainability and CSR initiatives.

EPR and the concept of the circular economy are driving innovation in recycling as well. For example, nearly 95 pounds of flexible and film plastic are found annually in the U.S. home, but only 1.9 percent of the population can recycle them curbside. In fact, many communities have banned the collection of flexible film because it can become tangled in equipment during the sorting of other recyclable materials.

To help solve this problem, recycling centers are now adopting AI and robotic technologies to help sort and identify flexible films, separating them from other recyclable materials early in the sorting process. While AI may be able to identify some products by the container alone, product identification marks can increase the speed and efficiency of such systems. And new technologies for chemical recycling have the potential to increase the ability to recycle resins from flexible plastic film, which are largely not recyclable today.

EPR can also be profitable

If we look more broadly at the potential value of EPR, it can benefit industry, people and the planet. The most obvious value is reducing the amount of garbage that must be buried or incinerated – each of which can have significant environmental consequences.

There’s also untapped opportunity. PSI estimates that $52 billion in recoverable electronics waste is sent to landfills each year, yet less than 40% is currently being collected for recycling. Less than 15% of rechargeable batteries are recycled and a significantly smaller number of single-use batteries are recycled. These items are made with valuable materials like zinc, steel, and manganese – and often with toxic metals like lead and cadmium as well.

With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, CHIPS & Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act, more electronics, batteries, and electric vehicles (EV) will be built in the U.S. Along with this investment in our economy comes the need for infrastructure to recycle the many components. With the potential recovery of $52 billion in re-usable materials, EPR provides an incentive to establish the standards and processes for recycling these valuable materials in a way that benefits the environment, the economy, and the health of our citizens.

Marking boosts recycling, supply chain efficiency

Here at Matthews Marking Systems, we work with customers in both industrial and consumer goods segments to help them meet EPR guidelines and regulations. We do this by integrating marking, coding and labeling systems on the production floor and with enterprise and cloud-based software solutions in the back office. This type of integration ensures that recyclable products and packaging are accurately tracked through the supply chain.

Contact us at [email protected] for a free consultation to learn more about our industry leading marking and coding solutions.