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The Impact – Recycling Overhaul and the Bottle Bill Debate

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Bills to restructure the recycling system in Washington returned to Olympia this year.

One bill would create an extended producer responsibility framework that would make producers of certain paper products and packaging like single-use food and beverage containers responsible for where that packaging winds up.

Then there’s the “bottle bill” to enact a new deposit/return law for beverage containers in Washington. It would tack on a 10¢ charge for each can or bottle purchased in Washington, which shoppers could recoup later by taking the empty bottles and cans to a recycling drop-off site or kiosk. Ten states have such laws in place. Oregon has had a bottle deposit program in place for 50 years.

Supporters of the recycling legislation claim it would improve the rate of recycling, incentivize people to pick up litter, and be better for the environment overall.

During a February hearing on SHB 2049, lawmakers heard from supporters and opponents of the extended producer liability legislation dubbed the “ReWRAP Act” in a nod to the 2023 version of the bill the “WRAP Act”.

“EPR for packaging is the most proven effective policy to improve recycling for all materials and has not been shown to increase direct consumer costs. There is widespread global consensus that EPR for packaging is a necessary solution. And now is the time for Washington to move forward,” said Kate Bailey, representing the Association of Plastic Recyclers.

Critics of the proposals argue it will increase the cost of groceries, harm existing recycling programs, and could have further unintended consequences.

“Recycling isn’t free. This bill hides the cost of recycling and manufacturers products. It doesn’t allow residents to see, nor understand what the true costs are in the collection, processing, and marketing of recyclables,” said Wendy Weiker, representing Republic Services. “Recycling companies are already doing what producers are being asked to do with this bill. We have invested millions in technology to increase material recovery over the years.”

“Recycled glass is a key ingredient in making new bottles. There’s a tremendous benefit in using that material. We could use as much of it from Washington as we can get. Unfortunately, the vast majority of it’s going into landfills in Washington because of the deficiencies of the existing system that does not work,” said Scott DeFife, representing the Glass Packaging Institute.

“Four-hundred-thirty jobs, high wage, family sustaining jobs are gone in Tacoma. Mill closed in September. Unfortunate. Why? Cost certainty. Mill’s need, cost certainty to stay open and remain competitive. This legislation, unfortunately, doesn’t give us that certainty,” said Bill Stauffacher, representing the American Forest & Paper Association.

We sat down for an extended interview with Heather Trim, Executive Director of Zero Waste Washington and a major supporter of the ReWRAP act and the container deposit bill.

“The Rewrap Act, which is the big recycling bill, that was an environmental priority this year. And it’s a system changing bill. It would revamp our recycling in Washington State, bring recycling for free to all the residents in the state who currently have garbage pickup at their curb,” said Trim. “Right now, only about 58% of our households actually have access to recycling curbside at this point. And we’re talking about residential recycling. So single family and multi-family recycling is what this bill is about. And what it would do is it would set up a program which is called Extended Producer Responsibility. The manufacturers and the brands, so big companies like Procter and Gamble, ones you’ve heard of would be paying for the end of life of all the packaging that we’re all getting at our homes. And they’re also incentivized to reduce the packaging, which is something that’s very important to a lot of people.”

As for the “bottle bill”:

“It makes a huge difference in terms of recycling those beverage containers and making sure they’re clean. So they’re really easy to be able to make into new bottles, new containers, and it also reduces litter a lot,” said Trim.

We also spoke with Katie Beeson representing the Washington Food Industry Association which is one of the organizations with concerns about the recycling overhaul, in particular the beverage container deposit law.

“We are considering the bottle bill as a tax. That $0.10 would be a tax for the customer. We would pay it at the distributor level when the product comes into the store. And then we would of course, pass that on with the assumption that the customer would then go be able to redeem that $0.10, but that’s on the customer. However, we pay a tax and the litter tax on that ten cent fee,” said Beeson.

As for the extended producer responsibility bill:

“The manufacturer in the current definition is the number one party that would be responsible. But there is a trickle down and maybe brand owners would be responsible or distributors as well, depending on where you fall in the waterfall. But all of those costs, we do assume, would be passed down to the customer, which would ultimately increase the cost of groceries. And we already know that we’re the fourth most expensive state for groceries in the country,” said Beeson.