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Are packaging fees inevitable in the U.S.?

Houston—Every other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development) country besides the U.S. imposes fees that brand owners must pay to dispose of their products' packaging. That fact alone would suggest that America's approach to end-of-life packaging scenarios is untenable, and change does indeed seem inevitable, driven in part by what Victor Bell describes as a "perfect storm." Speaking at the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) International Polyolefins Conference (Feb.

) International Polyolefins Conference (Feb. 21-24; Houston, TX), Bell predicted a new era in packaging, one of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), where market participants weigh very carefully the materials they choose for their packaging, considering the amount, its composition, and its end-of-life options because they'll have to help pay for its disposal.

President of Environmental Packaging International, Bell helps brand owners, retailers, and packaging manufacturers deal with new and pending packaging regulation, including Wal-Mart's sweeping scorecard, which, in some ways, prefaces how the entire industry might weigh packaging going forward. Bell told the audience that there will be EPR in this country because of the aforementioned storm where the forces of rising commodity prices, financially strapped cities, states, and municipalities, and the general public's awakening green consciousness come together. 

Lawrence Dull, a partner at Packaging Knowledge Group LLC, echoed Bell's stance in a presentation entitled, "Sustainability: De facto Regulation?" Citing a 2009 Cone Consumer environmental survey, Dull said 34% of people are now more likely to buy "environmentally responsible" products, with 44% of consumers indicating their environmental shopping habits have not changed as a result of the difficult economy. "More than half of the global population is aware of the term 'carbon footprint,'" Dull said, which is up from 38% in 2007. "As this awareness grows, it's likely that consumers will drive the sustainability market by demanding low carbon."

Even in the U.S. there are already material-specific restrictions being imposed on landfills. North Carolina began prohibiting plastic bottles in landfills in 2010, while San Francisco, Boston, Portland, and Phoenix have banned polystyrene (PS) food containers. The poster child has been the plastic bag, which faces taxes or prohibitions in New York, Seattle, Washington DC, and Connecticut, with other local restrictions pending.

Where governments haven't acted, the world's largest retailer has. Wal-Mart's goal is to reduce packaging across its global supply chain by 5% by 2013, and more ambitiously, have zero landfill waste by 2025.

Bell stressed, however, that plastics have some inherent advantages over other packaging materials, not the least of which is its low density, with weight an overriding factor in the new regulations. Comparing a variety of currently commercial packages for salt and the levies they'd face in nine different countries, Bell found that in spite of rates five times or higher for plastic, a flexible package had the lowest fees in a group that included a polypropylene (PP) jar and a metal package because of its light weight.—[email protected]

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