Older televisions and computer monitors are notoriously difficult to recycle

The benefits of recycling are well known. By diverting useful materials from landfills and incinerators, we save raw resources, reduce toxins in the environment, create jobs and save money. It’s good for the planet and good for us.

Many of the products we interact with on a daily basis are made of materials that are fairly easy to recycle, such as paper, bottle glass and aluminum. But others – things such as hard plastics, computers, furniture, and clothing and shoes – cannot be recycled so easily (and in many cases, can’t be recycled at all). This creates a real problem in the waste stream.

In addition, some consumer and environmental advocates believe our whole system of recycling needs some tweaking, especially when it comes to dealing with those hard-to-recycle products. Why do products have to be made with so many materials that have no second life, or made in a way that makes them expensive to recycle? And why do our tax dollars pay for waste disposal and recycling programs instead of the company that created the problem in the first place?

For decades there’s been a small but vocal group of people advocating for 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: producers. Companies who manufacture consumer goods have the best shot at reducing product’s adverse impact by changing product design, manufacturing and packaging.

According to UPSTREAM, a national organization that focuses on the root causes of environmental harm, EPR policy has two related features: (1) shifting financial and management responsibility, with government oversight, upstream to the producer and away from the public sector; and (2) providing incentives to producers to incorporate environmental considerations into the design of their products and packaging.

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.

Although bottle glass can be recycled and made back into bottles, window glass cannot be made into windows or many other things.

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brought together large retailers and consumer goods producers, with state governments, city officials, and NGOs, to start a dialogue 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. Companies, they believe, 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 EPR programs for electronics, mercury thermostats and containers (bottle return programs are not managed by manufacturers, though). 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.”

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.”

SB 199, a bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature earlier this year, would have required EPR for household hazardous waste, a category that includes solvents, pesticides and herbicides, and pool chemicals. The bill died in committee, but it shows that Oregonians are still thinking about ways to hold manufacturers responsible for what they create.

Consumers have a role to play in making EPR a reality for more materials. You can use your buying power to help encourage retailers and manufacturers to make products that are less toxic and easier to recycle, 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.
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