One of Recologys trash pits.
One of Recology's trash pits. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images Staff

So there you are, holding an empty milk carton and staring at your kitchen trash can and your recycling bag, hoping for some kind of clue.

You squeeze the milk carton a little. Seems like it’s made of paper on the outside, so it’s probably recyclable, right? But wait, does it have a foil lining on the inside? And what’s the rule about the plastic spout? Do you have to cut that part out before you recycle it? The words “please recycle” are printed on the back, but does that mean please recycle THIS CONTAINER, or is it just a general philosophy?

What the hell are you supposed to do with this thing and so many things like it? Why is getting rid of trash so hard? Isn’t there someone we can blame?

In fact, yes. In the US, manufacturers put food in complicated, hard-to-recycle packaging because those manufacturers aren’t on the hook for cleaning up after themselves — taxpayers are.

“We as consumers get stuck with decisions that we never made,” says Senator Mona Das, sponsor of a bill that would — hopefully — fix Washington’s lousy recycling rates by bringing us more in line with how things have worked for decades in Europe and Canada.

Lobbyists in the other Washington aren't thrilled about it.

Senate Bill 5697 is complicated, but to boil it down to its essential innovation: Senator Das wants Washington to implement a system called “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR), a tried-and-tested system that’s worked in many other countries but has only recently been done on a very limited basis in America.

Currently, without EPR, Washington residents pay to clean up trash — and that includes all of those confoundingly non-recyclable packages we have in the US, like foil-lined soup boxes, foam meat trays, and refrigerated pop-open biscuit tubes.

But if SB 5697 passes and we get EPR, eventually it’ll be on the manufacturers of those packages to pay into a shared fund that handles all their weirdo packaging. The worse their products are for the environment, the more they pay.

In other words, manufacturers would be allowed to continue making dirty packages, they’d just be forced to clean up after themselves instead of making us do it.

Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, sees this as a win-win. “This is going to save residents a lot of money,” she says. “Instead of paying for recycling, it’ll be paid by producers.”

“The minute you make businesses pay extra for something, they stop doing it,” Das says.

But as you can imagine, businesses don’t LIKE to pay extra, and national lobbying groups are pouring big money into Washington to try to pump the brakes on Das’ bill. They’re clearly scared: Last week, a Senate committee heard public testimony on the bill, and in addition to a handful of state and regional lobbyists, there were a significant number of national organizations eager to express “concerns.”

An additional complication is that two extremely similar recycling bills are currently up for consideration. SB 5697 is the strong EPR bill proposed by Das. But there’s also SB 5658, a much weaker alternative proposed by Sen. Derek Stanford. Stanford’s bill isn’t bad, necessarily — it would improve the labels on packages and require more plastic recycling. In fact, Das is a co-sponsor of that bill too, since it’s fairly unobjectionable. But her bill goes much, much further.

(Among Stanford’s largest campaign contributors in 2020 are various companies and organizations involved in the production of packaging, including Anheuser Busch, the Washington Beer & Wine Distributors Association, the Washington Beverage Association, and the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association PAC. In contrast, Senator Das did not take money from any of those parties in her last campaign.)

So what would Das’ EPR bill actually change? Based on how it’s been implemented in other countries going back to the ‘90s, companies would have a new incentive to produce the cleanest possible packaging in order to save money.

But wait — what’s stopping producers from just continuing to make dirty packaging, and passing the cost on to consumers? Well, yes, they might do that. But fortunately, it turns out that EPRs have a relatively minor impact on consumer costs compared to much larger factors like energy, labor, local taxes, and transportation. A study in Oregon found that the impact to consumers was, on average, $0.0056 per item — that is, half a penny. (And some items were actually cheaper.)

Das’ EPR legislation is an easy proposal for conservation-minded consumers to support. At last week’s online hearing, 86 people signed in to support the bill; just eight were opposed, and two were neutral.

Among the supporters were many of the usual suspects: Washington Conservation Voters; Washington Environmental Council; Zero Waste Washington; Puget Soundkeeper; the Association of Washington Cities; The Seattle Aquarium; Seattle Public Utilities.

But in addition to those non-speaking participants, a rogue’s gallery of polluters showed up to provide testimony either opposing the bill, or begging for it to be watered down — and interestingly, many of them were lobbyists who usually do business in that other Washington, DC.

Here are the Washington state groups who showed up last week to try to stop the current EPR bill:

  • Washington Refuse and Recycling Association

  • Northwest Grocery Association

  • Washington Food Industry Association

  • Washington Friends Of Farms and Forests

  • Waste Connections

  • Republic Services Company

  • Pioneer Recycling Services

  • Washington Retail Association

  • Washington Recycling Development Center

  • Washington Hospitality Association

  • Washington Beverage Association

  • Washington Newspaper Publishers Association

  • Allied Daily Newspapers Of Washington

  • Association of Washington Business

And here are the national organizations on the call:

  • Consumer Technology Association

  • Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers

  • Novolex

  • Waste Management

  • Recology

  • American Institute for Packaging and the Environment

  • Glass Packaging Institute

  • American Coatings Association

  • Household and Commercial Products Association

  • American Chemistry Council

Update! Glass Packaging Institute president Scott DeFife got in touch to let us know five things: 1) GPI is concerned that there's currently an unbalanced focus on plastic in the bill, which could be detrimental to the glass industry; 2) GPI believes there are issues with the way in which the bill determines what is considered recyclable; 3) GPI wants more accountability for waste haulers; 4) GPI is not opposed to the bill, they just want some things changed; and 5) They are not mad.

These industry groups aren’t all calling for the EPR plan to be abandoned — in fact, some paid lip service to the idea while also asking for it to be watered down or questioning whether it’s needed.

The Washington Retail Association, for example, wants more time for retailers to adjust to new policies, and they don’t want stores to be required to accept materials for recycling. Waste Connections wants more local control (though that’s what’s led to the patchwork of rules across the state).

“We’re already accomplishing much of what we believe this bill wants to accomplish,” said Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, which represents farmers and other groups. Her claim isn't really true, though — Washington’s recycling rate has dropped in recent years, waste management costs for households have increased, and large swaths of the state don’t even have access to recycling. Das’ bill would expand access and also ensure uniform rules for recycling, so a carton would go in the same bin no matter which city you’re in.

From the hearing, it seems clear that lobbyists know EPR is coming in some form, whether they like it or not; and whatever Washington passes, if it passes, will likely be a model for the rest of the country. So for now they’re trying to reduce their responsibility as much as possible.

But if polluters are successful, that means more of the status quo: stagnant recycling rates, confusing rules about what goes where, and more trash winding up in landfills — or worse, floating around in the environment for future generations to have to clean up.

“The millennials, the zoomers, they’re the ones left holding the proverbial bag,” Das says.

But that bag isn’t really proverbial.

Alyssa Barton, policy manager at Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, noted that her organization conducts frequent beach cleanups. “On these cleanups,” she said, “we find a lot of … packaging that would be impacted by this bill.”