Shifting the Burden of Waste Reduction and Recycling Upstream
By Shirley Perez West
The benefits of recycling are well known: divert useful materials from landfills and incinerators and we save raw resources, energy, and water; reduce toxins in the environment, create jobs, and save money. It’s good for the planet and good for us.
Dealing with a product at the end of its lifecycle isn’t enough, however, nor is counting on consumer behavior. What’s more, the burden of managing and paying for recycling programs falls on municipal governments.
A recent study at Yale University found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) estimate of how much solid waste we produce is off by half. We produce twice as much garbage as we thought. And that’s not even the whole story. Products have a lifecycle, and each step in the cycle creates waste. As the Story of Stuff documented in their groundbreaking 2007 video, researchers estimate that every trash can of waste consumers throw out represents 70 cans of waste generated farther upstream – during the extraction, manufacturing, and distribution processes a product goes through before reaching us.
To dig ourselves out from under this mountain of waste we need to start earlier in the process. That’s the focus of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a policy approach that puts the onus for reducing waste in the hands of the people who have the greatest ability to do something about it – the producers. Companies that manufacture consumer goods have the best shot at reducing a product’s adverse impact, from design to manufacturing to packaging.
And producers, not local governments and taxpayers, should bear the costs and management of disposal at the end of a product’s life. EPR helps account for the true cost of the seemingly inexpensive disposable products that fill the shelves.
According to UPSTREAM, a national organization that focuses on the root causes of environmental harm, EPR policy has two related features. The first is shifting financial and management responsibility, with government oversight, upstream to the producer and away from the public sector. The second is providing incentives to producers to incorporate environmental considerations into the design of their products and packaging.
The EPA has a similar definition for Product Stewardship, which “extends manufacturers’ responsibility for products to the disposal and recycling stages. This shift in responsibility provides an incentive for manufacturers to think differently about resources and materials so that toxicity reduction, reuse, and recycling are considered at the product design stage.”
There Oughta Be a Law
Europe is way ahead of the U.S. when it comes to EPR. The European Union (EU) has been working on making producers more responsible for the waste they create since the 1980s, when it set rules on the “production, marketing, use, recycling and refilling of containers of liquids for human consumption and on the disposal of used containers,” according to its website. In addition, some Member States set rules to address the environmental aspects of packaging and packaging waste. Since then, the EU crafted EPR legislation to “harmonize” what individual Member States had already been implementing and maintain a level playing field for manufacturers across the EU.
According to a 2012 report by the environmental group As You Sow, fifteen EU countries require that producers finance all costs of collecting and recycling packaging, and in 10 countries, governments and producers split the costs.
In 2010, the U.S. EPA brought together large retailers and consumer goods producers, with state governments, city officials, and NGOs, to start a dialog on how to pay for recycling. While companies pushed back against the notion of regulation, a few participants such as Walmart and Coca-Cola have since started offering grants and low-interest loans to municipalities to improve recycling. Product stewardship advocates say that’s not nearly enough – that companies should be footing the bill for the whole system.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) “supports product stewardship principles” as a way to reduce the environmental impacts from a product’s life cycle, and shift the cost of managing waste products from government agencies to those who produce and use the products. But it’s been largely up to state governments to enact laws. According to the Product Stewardship Institute, there are dozens of EPR laws in 34 states, often covering products that are difficult to recycle, like mattresses and paint.
Oregon has five EPR programs in place for beverage containers, electronics, carpet, mercury thermostats, and paint – though the DEQ acknowledges that manufacturers do not run the Oregon bottle bill program.
In fact, Oregon was the first state in the nation to enact a law requiring paint manufacturers to start a product stewardship program “to reduce waste, increase reuse and recycling, and safely dispose of remaining unusable paint and other coatings.” Oregonians who buy paint pay for the industry-managed program. BRING and other local retailers sell high quality remanufactured paint supplied by the program under the Metro Paint label.
In 2012, Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission adopted Materials Management in Oregon: 2050 Vision and Framework for Action. According to the DEQ, “The 2050 Vision takes a holistic approach to reducing the environmental impacts of materials across their entire life cycle–from resource extraction and design through production, consumption and management of discards.”
In 2015, the Oregon Legislature proposed two bills to help realize the 2050 vision: SB 245 allows for an increase in state solid waste disposal fees, which will fund several new services and restore services recently lost during the recession (including grants). It also affirms DEQ’s authority to implement the 2050 Vision and Framework for Action. SB 263 changes recycling and waste prevention program elements required of larger cities and their counties, and updates state and local goals.
Portland Metro is currently working on EPR for certain household hazardous wastes beyond paint, says Scott Klag, Metro’s Senior Planner of Resource Conservation and Recycling. During the 2015 legislative session, says Klag, Metro “had draft legislation introduced and had an informational hearing on it before the House Energy and Environment Committee.” Currently, Metro is undertaking a stakeholder process to discuss the concept legislation with industry, local governments, NGOs, and other parties.
Closer to home, BRING’s RE:think Business program encourages local companies to take more responsibility for their environmental impact by helping them improve efficiency and use fewer resources (for example, LED lighting, paper reduction, non-toxic cleaning products).
The Consumer’s Role
Beyond the basics – reduce, reuse, recycle – consumers can use their buying power to help drive decisions of retailers and manufacturers to make less toxic and easier to recycle products, the Northwest Product Stewardship Council says. Here are their suggestions for making your voice heard:
- Before buying a product, find out if the manufacturer or retailer takes back and recycles their products.
- If you’re buying a product to replace one, ask if they will recycle your old one.
- Let manufacturers know you would like them to offer a take-back program.
- Share your knowledge and choices with your friends and family.