Why EPR is Good for the Packaging Industry, Brand Owners - and the Planet, with Gary Cohen

In this episode of the Beyond the Shelf: The Product & Packaging Podcast, Laura Foti speaks with Gary Cohen, SupplyOne's food packaging and sustainability coach, about what Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is and why the packaging industry and brand owners should be paying attention now.

Posted on 
March 22, 2023
Laura Foti
CMO, Specright

On the surface, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation may seem like a burden – or even a threat – to the packaging industry.

But according to Supplyone’s Food and Sustainable Packaging Coach, Gary Cohen, EPR is actually good for business, and for the planet. 

Gary and his wife Liz founded Valiant Paper and Packaging in Secaucus, New Jersey in 1983, and were recognized by Time and Newsweek for their closed-loop packaging program. Today, he's a packaging professional and sustainability coach with years of experience in sustainable plastic packaging design and corrugated manufacturing.

To say Cohen was ahead of the curve when it comes to packaging sustainability and EPR is an understatement. 

In fact, he and his wife used some of the same strategies 30 years ago to grow their packaging business. The programs they implemented centered around recovering shrink wrap from their customers and re-using the material to ensure it had a useful end of life. This not only prevented packaging from ending up in landfills, but helped his customers save money and improved their bottom line. 

And if Cohen’s story sounds familiar, it’s because it is – he and Specright founder & CEO Matthew Wright grew up in the packaging industry in NYC around the same time and even worked a block away from one another. I hope you enjoy this lively conversation – and I’m confident you’ll be able to apply some of the strategies Gary used to your own products and packaging sustainability plans. 

Below are some highlights from our conversation – you can listen to the full audio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Soundcloud. And be sure to subscribe to our channel to get the latest episodes as soon as they drop. 

On demystifying EPR

“EPR, Extended Producer Responsibility, is basically taking the responsibility of the recycling off of the taxpayer and putting it onto the brand owner, putting it onto the owner of the packaging, or the person who is putting the packaging out there and giving them that responsibility. 

I always like to say, it's kind of like if you think about the Mississippi River, and let's say the producer is in St. Louis. And the producer says, ‘Oh, okay, I've got to get my goods down to Memphis, and that's the end of my responsibility because that's the consumer.’ Well, extended responsibility basically says, ‘No, no, Mr. Producer, your responsibility doesn't end in Memphis. It ends in New Orleans. It ends at the end.’ You need to be taking the material out of the waste stream, recycling it, and that's when your responsibility ends.” 

On the early days recovering stretch film from customers and the impact on their business – and landfill avoidance

“I went around to customers who I was selling stretch film to, and those customers who I wasn't selling stretch film to, which was quite a few. And I presented a program, I said, ‘Listen, we'll send you stretch film, but we want to take your stretch film from the dumpster back.’ And they were like, ‘You want to do what? You want me to send you back my garbage stretch film?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we have a purpose for it, and we're going to go ahead and send it down to Trex and we're going to make plastic lumber out of it.’

And they said, ‘All right’ And we had some discussions, and I would be asking, ‘How much does it cost you to throw away that stretch film?’ And they said, ‘Usually about 500 to $1,000 dollars a week.’ …I would jump into dumpsters and try to figure out how much stretch film was in that dumpster. And I'd come back out after my “physical waste audit” and I'd say, ‘All right. Well, I think we can save you about $500 a week.’ So we went and developed this whole program, and it ran for about a year, and we were actually able to build up about 40,000 pounds a month of stretch film.’

On the impact recovering stretch film had on his company – and brand 

“We would bring it back on our trucks. We would give the customer a bin and then a bag, and they would take the stretch film, and instead of putting it in a dumpster, they'd put it in a bag. We then would get 40,000 pounds. We'd put it on a truck, send it down to Trex, and they would make lumber. We're a small company. And all of a sudden we started getting recognized because we're helping the environment.”

On the evolution of EPR 

“Well, as someone who's been at it [EPR] for 30 years and honoring the people that I worked with 30 years ago who may not still be around, there were thousands of people who put this effort in. And listening to Paul Nowak, Executive Director of GreenBlue, yesterday [during the 2023 Spec Management Summit] and the excitement that he has, EPR, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Having been in this and understood the solid waste problem and watching it grow and manifest, we can with EPR, this is a solution. EPR provides the ability that maybe someday in 5, 10, 15 years that we don't have to put as much in the landfill, that we could be recycling 50 to 60% more.”

On the collaborative nature of industry and government

“EPR is nothing to be afraid of. And let me explain why. I am on…the Sierra Club Solid Waste and Mining Committee. And they are putting together, and we are putting together, a EPR bill that we're actually going to be putting forth to the Tennessee legislator next week. So you get to learn a little bit about the intricacies and how EPR works. And I've had the benefit of the folks in Colorado who are mentoring us because it behooves all of us as a state. And this is one of the reasons why I think EPR is going to pass is because this is not just one state. This is not, ‘Hey, I'm going to pass it and then I'm just going to go and do my thing.’ No, no. This is a team approach. So the more folks that we get on the team, the bigger and the better we learn.”

On the importance of PROs (Producer Responsibility Organizations)

“... I was on the phone the other day with someone who was instrumental in getting Colorado to pass it [EPR]. And she said, ‘It's important for folks to know that this is not government-managed. This is industry-managed.’ Government legislates that we have to have this…But that's not to say that they're going to come in and tell us what to do. 

We have the producer responsibility organization (PRO), this is the industry, which will be overseen by an advisory committee of 12 to 13 different stakeholders. The PRO are the  people who are going to set the recycling rates, set the items that are going to be recycled, and handle the funding. Because this is a business, when you're running a PRO, you're going to be basically running a business. 

So you'd like to have business folks there. But you're going to have a lot of input from different people. So that's why when they say, ‘Don't be afraid of it,’ it's basically, we have to legislate it so we make sure it gets done. But once it's set up, the PRO is industry-driven. 

On his hope for the next generation of packaging professionals on making EPR cost-neutral 

“And the whole idea of being able to use the folks who are very talented in schools that have come out with knowledge, this is the perfect time to go ahead and make EPR cost neutral. We have two or so years to go ahead and figure out how do we make sure that with the reductions, that we can somehow make this all cost neutral so there's no additional cost. That's the value. And that's what I see in terms of the packaging schools, like MSU and Clemson, which are really stepping up, leaning into it, not on their heels, leaning into it. They should be welcoming this issue, be endorsing it, they should be supporting it, and get out in front of it.”

Listen to the whole episode here – and you can follow Gary Cohen on LinkedIn here and learn more about his EPR efforts with the Sierra Club Solid Waste and Mining Committee here


Laura Foti

Laura leads marketing and investor relations at Specright. Prior to Specright, she led advertising and analytics at GE Digital, GE’s Industrial Internet software business. Before that, she was a consultant at Deloitte Digital working in enterprise digital transformation, where she helped clients design and deploy eCommerce experiences, develop revenue-driving mobile apps, and reimagine their global digital marketing strategy. Laura was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for marketing and advertising and Brand Innovators 40 Under 40 and 100 Women to Watch lists. She graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She resides in Newport Beach, CA.

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