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5 Gyres sat with the president of ASIPLA, the Chilean version of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the company Cambiaso, the largest plastic bag recycler in South America to hear how they want to frame the National Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bill. We heard familiar arguments about waste management and recycling and opposition to product bans. The big questions is: Is the role of brand manufacturers to get their stuff back?

Photo: 5 Gyres

Photo: 5 Gyres

The bill is called “Responsabilidad Extendida del Productor” (REP) and was generated when Chilean government proposed a “Green Tax” applying to consumer goods, but with little clarity on how funds will be spent. Plastic producers and manufactures got ahead of the game by aggressively promoting REP.

In 2012 Chile made 16.5 million tons of total waste. 10 million tons was industrial waste from leftover material from manufacturing and packaging. 90% of that plastic was recovered. But of 6.5 million tons of consumer waste, a dismal .35% was recovered. In Chile, landfills and illegal dumping appear to be the norm.

The Chilean REP bill will hold retailers responsible to get a quota of their brands’ product back. Than means CocaCola, Pepsico, Walmart, Unilever, etc. must get back a % of their stuff, otherwise there are steep fines. This is expected to drive two ideas – increased recovery and increased valuation.

1. Increased recovery means your company is required by law to meet a target quota for product and packaging recovery, and that incentivizes companies to make the recovery of their product efficient.

2. Increased valuation means that once companies have their hands full of their post-consumer products, they have to dispose of it. There’s value if it’s designed for easy material recovery, otherwise there is going to be a disposal cost.

ASIPLA suggests these two concepts in REP will drive innovation. Small plastic items difficult to recover, like microbeads in cosmetics, plastic bags that are lightweight and subject to wind, or small sauce packets, will need a design overhaul. This also applies to multi-material packaging that’s difficult to separate, like laminates of paper, metals and plastic found in tetra paks and bubble packs for medicines, or plastic/paper composites found in coffee cups. REP favors innovations like uniform materials in products, or designs that do not escape into the environment easily. ASIPLA and Cambiaso say this makes product bans unnecessary.

5 Gyres disagrees. We’ve just witnessed microbeads become banned in California, sure to create a market ripple around the world for a product that pollutes the environment with no plan for recovery. The other, and more contentious, are plastic bag bans. A ban is necessary for two good reasons:

1. The cleanup cost is too much for municipalities. When San Francisco banned the bag, they figured it cost them 17 cents per bag to pull them from trees, out of storm drains and off of beaches. With a very modern waste management system and a high public awareness of the problem, the plastic bag, by design, still escaped the system.

2. Escaped bags in the environment are dangerous. Plastics in the ocean shred rapidly into microplastics. They absorb toxins, and scientists agree ocean plastics should be labeled as a hazardous substance. The distribution of microplastics is global and the impacts are ecosystem-wide. They are too dangerous to tolerate their loss to the environment, and that means bags must go.

Photo: 5 Gyres

Photo: 5 Gyres

In anticipation of REP, some companies are developing voluntary and incentivized recovery systems to capture plastic waste in order to help companies meet their future quota. One company, Triciclos, has created over 60 kiosks across Chile to collect and sort branded products and packaging. I visited one Triciclos kiosk, where a steady stream of consumers voluntarily deliver their plastics, paper, glass and metal. You dump your stuff in a dozen holes in the wall, of which 6 are for plastic. Look at the white square in the middle of this photo centered on the orange panel labeled “PS”. It says, “Yogurt containers are not permitted.” I asked a rep from Triciclos, “Are you talking to the yogurt companies about meeting their quota with a better design?” He pointed to a sign that lists what they do and do not take. “Once REP happens, these companies will figure it out on their own. In the case of yogurt cups, they only need to change the glue on the label.”

Chilean REP has the potential to be and international model, but that depends on how it meets the bottom line. Will there be reductions in volumes of landfill waste? Will changes in product and packaging design affect the type and abundance of trash in the environment? Will those two innovation drivers (Increased recovery and valuation) actually work?

I took this photo of bags in the trees 5 days ago in Punta Arenas, next to the Strait of Magellan at the southern end of the world. When I return to Chile, which I certainly will do again and again, will I be able to take the same photo bag-free? We’ll see.

Photo: 5 Gyres

Photo: 5 Gyres

(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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