The March 13 column, “Ask Eartha: What do we do about the excessive amount of product packaging?”, did not note that not all materials are recycled at the same rate. For example, in the United States, more paper is recycled each year from municipal recycling streams than plastic, glass, and aluminum combined. Overly broad Extended Producer Responsibility policies attempt to bundle different materials into one policy with the mistaken expectation that everything will improve accordingly. These policies are typically applied as a solution for materials that are hazardous, difficult to handle, and have low recycling rates, including batteries, paint, mattresses, or electronics. For highly recycled materials like paper, these policies could disrupt recycling success.
Paper recycling is an environmental success story with lessons learned that Colorado lawmakers must consider in their goal to improve recycling rates. Thanks to billions of dollars of private investment, the paper industry recycles approximately 50 million tons of recovered paper each year, totaling more than one billion tons over the past two decades. Overall, paper recycling rates in the United States are extremely high, with paperboard recycling in 2020 at nearly 89% – an extended producer responsibility rate that would likely not improve. In Colorado, nearly 50% of residents have access to curbside paper recycling, while more than 61% have access to in-depot recycling. Cities like Denver are using innovative technologies to recycle more, including paper cups and pizza boxes, which can go into recycling bins.
Reducing pollution and strengthening recycling infrastructure are crucial, and paper products are part of the solution. However, if Extended Producer Responsibility policies fail to take into account decades of paper success, these policies could jeopardize our paper recycling system. Legislators should use the achievements of paper recycling as a model to improve the recycling of low-recovery materials, not contaminate the paper recycling stream.