Extended Producer Responsibility

Make It, Take It!


Humanity is overshooting Earth’s ecological limits, consuming resources and generating waste at an unsustainable rate. Packaging materials are valuable resources, yet at least 43 million tons of plastic, glass, metal, and paper packaging—much of it with market value—is landfilled or burned in the U.S. each year. Packaging waste is also the biggest component of ocean litter that harms marine life and pollutes our oceans. The commodity market value of this wasted glass, plastic, paper, and metal packaging is estimated at $11.4 billion.i

Companies have the resources to redesign products and packaging to stay within the bounds of our resource limitations but need to take stronger actions to recover and re-use waste. Product packaging is a good place to start reducing and recycling waste; it represents nearly half of the total U.S. municipal waste stream and is a substantial contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The Value of Wasted Packaging in the U.S.

Total U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Generation by Category

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) or Make It, Take It! policies challenge companies to take responsibility for the impact of products and packaging over their full lifecycle. Europe and Canada have adopted EPR practices to shift responsibility for packaging waste from consumers and governments to producers. EPR is a fast-growing area of focus for sustainability-minded companies in the U.S. Leading brands like Coca-Cola Co., Nestlé Waters North America, and PepsiCo have taken responsibility for a majority of their post-consumer bottles and cans, setting an example for other consumer product companies.

Packaging and Carbon Pollution

Most attention on GHG reduction centers on large industrial sources such as electric utilities. Electric power is the largest source of GHG emissions when measured using a traditional industrial sector approach (34%). However, a recent systems-based analysis of embedded emissions in the U.S. supply chain concluded that products and packaging are responsible for an even bigger slice of GHG emissions—44% (see chart 3).ii

Packaging Link to Carbon Pollution

Nestlé Waters NA found that 55% of its carbon footprint comes from its bottles.iii Coca-Cola Co. says packaging is the largest contributor to the carbon footprint of several of its products.iv

In 2004, a European Union packaging directive required most members to achieve a 55% recycling goal for packaging by 2008. Strong U.S. packaging recycling rules could result in reduced electric power needed for production, thereby reducing GHG emissions. One recent study concluded that increasing recycling and composting, and reducing waste generation by 1% per year between 2008 and 2030 could yield a carbon dioxide reduction equivalent to closing 21% of U.S. coal-fired power plants.v

Momentum for Change

As You Sow has obtained unprecedented commitments from Coca-Cola Co., Nestlé Waters NA, and PepsiCo, three of the largest U.S. beverage companies, to recycle a majority of bottles and cans sold over the next six to eight years. These companies realize that significant improvements in systems for collecting and recycling empty containers are needed to achieve these goals. Through our Consumer Packaging initiative, we are expanding engagement to consumer packaged goods companies. Several promising actions are underway pressing companies to adopt Make It, Take It! policies for post-consumer packaging through new EPR mandates:

  • The NGO Recycling Reinvented, co-founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Nestlé Waters NA, is promoting state EPR legislation similar to Canadian and European programs, which would shift the costs to recycle packaging from taxpayers to producer brands.
  • With record U.S. budget deficits, there is scant funding for new municipal or state recycling operations. Shifting responsibility to producers to pay for recycling packaging through an EPR system is an attractive option for state governments and state officials are increasingly supporting EPR frameworks.
  • In 2012, our Kraft Inc. shareholder proposal asking the giant food company to adopt EPR received a very strong first-year vote of 25.6% at the company’s annual meeting. This represents a major advance for an issue that is still gaining traction among companies as well as stakeholder groups. A subsequent vote at grocer Kroger Co. received a solid vote of 13%.
  • Ameripen, a new industry trade group on the environmental aspects of packaging was established, reflecting concern that EPR is gaining momentum.
  • Grassroots activists at Cradle2 Coalition are mobilizing to support EPR legislation.

Engaging Consumer Product Industry Leaders

As You Sow is engaging key consumer product companies like General Mills, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever to take responsibility for collection and recycling of their packaging. We are working with Coca-Cola Co. and Nestlé Waters NA, as well as NGO stakeholders for broader corporate acceptance of EPR systems in the U.S. Since producers control design and marketing decisions, they have the greatest ability and incentive to reduce the overall environmental impact of their products. We are committed to extensive engagement with these consumer giants to adopt EPR policies for packaging waste and to develop more efficient product design and recovery systems that will lead to a long-term goal of sustainable production and consumption.

EU vs. U.S. Plastic Packaging Recycling Rates

While U.S. companies resist taking responsibility for packaging, their European counterparts are praising the success of EPR systems. Enthusiastic praise for these systems has come from a major European packaging trade group whose members include prominent Procter & Gamble and Kraft Foods. Make It, Take It! type laws for packaging in Europe have diminished public antagonism to packaging waste, been responsible for a “remarkable” reduction in waste sent to disposal, and local authorities are seeing “lower costs for the public purse,” according to Julian Carroll, Managing Director of Europen. Carroll calls the E.U. waste directive that led to the development of EPR systems in many countries “clearly one of the most successful pieces of E.U. environmental legislation.” The amount of packaging going to final disposal in 15 E.U. countries fell by 43% over the past 11 years, largely due to higher recycling levels generated by these laws.

Making Consumption More Sustainable

Increased recycling of packaging will yield strong environmental benefits, leading to more efficient use of materials, reduced extraction of natural resources, and lower GHG emissions. EPR policies will create new markets for packaging materials that currently have little value and keep plastics out of oceans where they imperil marine life.

Our Vision

EPR mandates can lead to new systems of production that use materials more efficiently and eliminate waste by turning discarded products into new raw materials. As You Sow welcomes your support as we engage companies to adopt stronger packaging stewardship policies that can lead to sustainable production and consumption of goods for future generations.

For more extensive information and background making the case for EPR for packaging, consult our new report Unfinished Business: The Case for EPR for Post-Consumer Packaging.


i Conrad MacKerron, Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging, (As You Sow, 2012)

ii Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, USEPA, Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices, September 2009; Joshuah Stolaroff, Products, Packaging and US Greenhouse Gas Emissions, (Product Policy Institute, September 2009)

iiiNestlé Waters North America 2008 Citizenship Report, p. 31

ivCoca-Cola press release, March 9, 2009

vEcocycle, GAIA, ILSR, Stop Trashing the Climate, 2008