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One side effect of the pandemic is the uptick in waste going to landfills. As we order supplies online, order in takeout, and stock up on toilet paper, pasta, and frozen pizza dough (just me?), we’re bringing more and more packaged products into our homes than ever before.

And after conducting our entire lives within four walls, we’re confronted with how much non-recyclable waste we produce. Plastic bags and plastic wrap, plastic-lined paper takeout boxes, styrofoam cups and peanuts and meat trays, bubble wrap and sealed air pouches, freezer bags and bottle caps: none of it can be recycled except in a few select municipalities.

If we all take the time we use to drive plastic bags back to the grocery store and put it toward political action, our waste bins could look a whole lot better by 2021.

One prominent zero-waste influencer and entrepreneur admitted that, after a decade of perfection, she broke down and purchased non-recyclable packaged goods as she prepared for COVID-19 to hit New York City. Some smaller cities are even suspending recycling pickup, deeming it a non-essential service.

If you’re frustrated by this pile-up of trash, you’re not alone. But frustration at our system has been building up for quite some time. Starting last year, consumers and government officials alike started questioning why we need to take on all the responsibility (and expense) of disposing of packaging that corporations create and profit from.

Right now as a society we’re doing something I call “consumer-blaming” – selling you something that isn’t recyclable in your municipality (like the Tetra Pak container with the plastic lining and spout that your almond milk comes in) and then telling you that you would find a way to recycle it if you truly cared about the environment.

But you can’t throw those things in with the normal recycling! That is called “wishcycling” and means that the batch is contaminated and thrown in the landfill. What companies and the astroturf campaigns they fund often suggest is that you should save all the used empties, then package them up and send them to a recycling program like Terracycle. Many companies, including beauty brands, food brands, contact lens brands, and even cigarette brands, do this to avoid taking responsibility (it’s true – cigarette brands actually want you to send back your cigarette butts instead of them making a change to remove the un-recyclable and frankly ineffective filters altogether).

Goal state: Extended producer responsibility

But I digress (this topic gets my hackles up). The paradigm that we’re trying to get to is called extended producer responsibility, or EPR. In this system, corporations above a certain size have to pay for the responsible disposal of their packaging, with higher fees for landfilled waste and lower fees for recyclable waste with higher value on the secondary market. This system would incentivize brands to redesign their packaging to be recyclable.

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There is currently a suite of proposed local and state regulations that would do just that. As Time Magazine reports, “States including New York, Massachusetts, and Washington are considering EPR-for-packaging bills, and Maine seems poised to pass one in the next few months. Maine’s legislature already passed a law last year directing the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to draft legislation to establish an extended producer responsibility law for packaging in the state.”

At the federal level, legislation called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was proposed earlier this year. It would institute a nationwide 10-cent deposit on all containers regardless of material; require producers of packaging to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs; ban certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable; require packaging to have a minimum amount of recycled content; standardize recycling and composting labels; spur investment in US domestic recycling and composting infrastructure; prohibit plastic waste from being shipped to developing countries (which are currently drowning in our waste after China stopped taking it); and halt the construction of new plastic-manufacturing facilities until the Environmental Protection Agency updates and creates regulation for them.

Experts say that EPR legislation is far more complete and effective than going through the gargantuan political effort of banning one type of thing — bags, straws, styrofoam — at a time.

It’s also a system that takes into account the needs of low-income communities, which often lack the funds or bandwidth to handle waste that is dumped on them. A deposit system is an elegant way to transfer funds from people who have more money than time — people with full-time jobs who don’t want to go out of their way to bring their yogurt cups to the recycling center — to people who have more time than money — the underemployed people that collect recyclables and exchange them for cash. In some European cities, trash cans even have a shelf around the outside where you can place your recyclable container so that someone who needs the money can pick it up to get the deposit without having to rifle through the trash.

How to make EPR a reality

The time is ripe for this — the US is one of the only developed countries without federal EPR legislation. So, how can you get involved in the effort? Well, start local. Look up who is in charge of your local recycling system, and send them information on this type of legislation. Your city is probably paying through the nose for waste collection and disposal, and might be open to a solution that can save money. You’ll just need to frame it so that they’ll be open to reading it regardless of political leaning; fiscal responsibility is always a good opener.

Then, look up whether there is an effort underway in your state that you can join. If not, which state-level political or environmental advocacy organization would be most able to take this on? Let them know this should be one of their priorities this year.

Finally, the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is not likely to pass through Congress in this tumultuous year. But you can set it up for success by letting both your representative and people campaigning for election know that this is an issue you care about and would like to see get attention first thing in 2021.

If we all take the time we use to drive plastic bags back to the grocery store and put it toward political action, our waste bins could look a whole lot better by 2021.

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Alden Wicker

Alden Wicker writes about the fashion industry and its impact on the environment and people. Follow her on twitter at @aldenwicker.

New York, NY