Skip to main content

Welcome to FNEI Insights, a blog series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. This month, we talked to Kristin Aldred Cheek, Safe Community Solutions Senior National Account Executive at Stericycle, a compliance-based solutions provider serving healthcare organizations and commercial businesses, about the implications of extended producer responsibility (EPR), best practices to meet obligations, and what the future might hold.

Kristin Aldred Cheek

Kristin Aldred Cheek

For many multinational companies operating in the consumer products space, extended product responsibility (EPR) isn’t a new concept. The policy approach, which aims to decrease waste by holding manufacturers and distributors physically and/or financially responsible for the complete life-cycle of their products, was introduced more than 30 years ago.

 Since then, companies and organizations have implemented a multitude of EPR initiatives in various forms and with varying success rates. Some programs have been mandatory, while in other cases environmentally minded companies have negotiated or voluntarily developed product stewardship programs. 

In product segments like paint, batteries, and medical sharps, EPR programs have helped to reduce toxicity and keep waste removal and disposal systems safe. Voluntary take-back programs developed by companies such as Dell, Apple, and Samsung have helped reduce electronics waste, and clothing brands like Levi’s and H&M are offering used garment collection and trade-in discounts. Other efforts, such as mattress EPR laws, have struggled with successful implementation.

 However, recent movements in statewide EPR legislation have put many U.S. companies and government relations professionals on high alert. In July, Maine signed the nation’s first EPR packaging law, which holds big corporations and brands accountable for the plastic waste and packaging they have created. Oregon, Massachusetts, and several other states are expected to follow suit.

 What does this mean for companies? In Maine, the new law will shift the costs of recycling packaging waste off of cities, towns, and taxpayers and place the responsibility on large corporations. In other words, producers will be responsible for the recovery and recycling of the packaging they put into the market after it has been used — a development many think is long overdue. Regions like the EU and Canada have had EPR packaging programs in place for decades.

 Lawmakers and environmental groups believe EPR legislation will help the U.S. tackle its waste crisis, make recycling easier and more cost-effective, and hopefully spark innovation in sustainable packaging design. By shifting the responsibility back to the manufacturer, the hope is that producers would start to design out waste rather than generate it.

 Several consumer products leaders seem to be on board. A statement of support released by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation was endorsed by more than 100 leading businesses, including big names like Nestle, The Coca-Cola Company, and Walmart. According to the statement, without EPR policies, “packaging collection and recycling is unlikely to be meaningfully scaled and tens of millions of tonnes of packaging will continue to end up in the environment every year.”

 In light of the new EPR developments, FNEI spoke to Kristin Aldred Cheek, Safe Community Solutions Senior National Account Executive at Stericycle, a compliance-based solutions provider serving healthcare organizations and commercial businesses, about the implications of EPR, best practices to meet obligations, and what the future might hold.

FNEI: How is extended producer responsibility affecting the ways companies develop materials, create new products, and do business?

KAC: One aim of most EPR policies is to impact product design by considering the product’s end of life very early on in the process. That might mean changing a design to reduce material use, or planning for how resources can be recovered. For example, when a consumer receives a product, a company might also provide them with a method of returning that product at the end of its useful life, like a mail-back kit for pharmaceuticals, medical sharps, or biohazard waste, which Stericycle offers as part of its services to customers.

FNEI: Stericycle has grown into a leader in medical waste management over the years. How has your approach to EPR evolved?

KAC: From the company’s inception, Stericycle’s mission has been to protect health and well-being in a safe, responsible, and sustainable way. As EPR programs have expanded, particularly for pharmaceuticals and medical sharps, we’ve added capabilities and expertise within the company to help our customers meet their obligations under these programs. 

FNEI: In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge companies face when it comes to thinking long-term about the lifecycle of products and materials, and their environmental impact?

KAC: It’s not so much a challenge but an imperative: from the very first step in the product design process, manufacturers need to consider waste and end-of-life resource recovery. Companies like Stericycle are often at the end of the lifecycle when we might be asked to quickly develop a solution to safely dispose of a new product. We can do that, our people are not only experts in managing waste but also in the logistics of how to collect and transport materials that are dispersed throughout a large geography. But if we’re involved earlier in the process, we can help build in creative and cost-effective solutions for waste and material recovery. We want to be involved from the beginning. 

FNEI: What advice and/or best practices would you suggest for executives who are being asked to address, document, and report on their product stewardship as to extended producer responsibility?

KAC: EPR programs have been in place for decades in Europe and Canada and here in the U.S. now for quite some time, so there’s a lot of knowledge and expertise available to help companies navigate EPR obligations. I would say look to those resources and talk to your peers outside of your industry, across different products and programs. Of course, EPR is essentially mandated product stewardship. Companies can pursue ways to minimize the impacts of their products on their own as well.

What do you predict will be the future of EPR as more companies realize the environmental impact of their products?

KAC: One of the primary drivers of EPR policies in the U.S. is the cost of managing the municipal waste stream, which falls to local governments and taxpayers. That’s why a lot of EPR programs are for materials that are difficult or costly to manage or are bulky and use a lot of landfill space.

Right now, there’s a growing shift toward home healthcare, accelerated by COVID-19. We don’t yet know what the impact might be on the volume of household waste, the cost to communities, or potential risk if, for example, there are more sharps or biohazardous material in the municipal waste stream. That’s an area we are interested in watching. 

With the first packaging bills passing through state legislatures this year, there’s going to be much more awareness about EPR. It can be complex, but it doesn’t need to be confusing. Take advantage of the knowledge and experience that’s already available.