Policy being studied in Illinois could boost the state’s recycling rate
A policy that would hold packaging producers responsible for the full life cycle of their products could triple Illinois’ recycling rate, according to a recent study from The Recycling Partnership — but there’s a long way to go to make it happen.
While the state's current rate of 23% is on par with national numbers, the low percentage means Illinois loses 1.5 million tons of recyclable material each year to the landfill. Experts say a policy called “extended producer responsibility” would help boost the number of recyclables that make it into our curbside bins.
The policy, which is currently being studied in Illinois, is “a paradigm shift in how waste is being managed,” said Scott Cassel, CEO and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute.
As its name suggests, it essentially extends producers’ responsibility upstream to the materials that go into a product, all the way downstream post-consumer to where those materials end up. Better known as EPR, the policy can be applied to a vast of array of products, from mattresses to motor oil. In fact, it has been implemented in Illinois in regard to electronics, prescription drugs and, most recently, paint.
For instance, the state’s Consumer Electronics Recycling Act outlaws throwing electronics away and instead provides drop-off locations for things like your old laptop and television monitor. That’s EPR because it requires electronics manufacturers to share in the management and financial responsibility of that recycling system.
When it comes to applying this policy to packaging, the difference is the sheer amount of material. Containers and packaging accounted for a whopping 28% of the total municipal solid waste stream in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“There's a lot to get through, and it takes time,” Cassel said, adding that four states are currently in the process of designing and implementing packaging EPR policies: Maine, Oregon, California and Colorado.
With the four laws slated to go into full effect over the next three years, the U.S. is beginning to join the ranks of countries in Europe, which have had packaging EPR policies up and running for decades. Closer to home, most of the provinces in Canada have also taken up packaging EPR programs — and they have the recycling rates to prove it. In 2020, the producer stewardship group operating in British Columbia reported a rate of 85.8%.
According to The Recycling Partnership’s study, successful packaging EPR in the U.S. would incentivize companies to design more recyclable packaging, provide financial support to ensure better recycling access, and fund outreach efforts so that more households will participate in recycling.
In Illinois, 74% of all households have access to recycling, either through curbside pickup, drop-off or bins provided to multifamily homes. That means over a quarter of the state’s households are not able to recycle.
“We have access for recyclers to move material into markets because we’re such a major transportation hub in the Chicago market. Other parts of the state don't have access like that,” said Christina Seibert, the executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County. “Ultimately, we would hope that packaging gets more recyclable, more recoverable, we have more options, and certainly universal access across the state so that there's equity in recycling for everybody.”
With 90% of the plastic used in Illinois ending up in landfills — in part because much of it is not recyclable to begin with — Jen Walling of the Illinois Environmental Council added a good EPR program would also focus on waste reduction.
“We'd love to have an EPR bill that we support, but it definitely has to be one that prioritizes reduction of waste above everything else. We can’t keep doing what we're doing, where we're creating unlimited amounts of waste and then trying to figure out what to do with it,” she said. “If we do an EPR bill, it really needs to be focused on rewarding the manufacturers that cut the amount of garbage they're creating in the first place.”
With the life cycle of products and their packaging contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, Cassel added that efforts to extend producers’ responsibility could play a crucial role in combating climate change.
“If we can reduce, reuse and recycle, we are lowering the amount of energy that we need to produce in order to make more of these products,” he said.
Seibert, who is part of the newly created Statewide Recycling Needs Assessment Advisory Council, said the earliest a packaging EPR bill will be introduced in Illinois is likely 2027.
That’s because last July, state legislators amended a proposal that would have established a program to instead study the issue.
“Pretty much nobody was happy with the bill other than local government that proposed it,” Seibert said. “We decided, with all these unanswered questions, let's pivot the bill to a needs assessment and answer these questions.”
The law requires the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to hire a consultant to conduct the study by this July. It then requires the consultant to provide a final draft by May 2026 and the advisory council to provide recommendations by December 2026.
The council, which is made up of representatives from local government, waste and recycling haulers, producers, and environmental organizations, will meet for the first time this month.
• Jenny Whidden, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.