agenda for action
excerpted from Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000

We are living through what John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends, has described as a parenthesis of history - an in-between time when the old ways of doing things have become too expensive, but when we have yet to fully develop new regulations, new laws, new ethics, new organizational structures, and new technologies to construct a new order. We have the technical ability to move toward a zero waste society. We need only to muster the political will to make it a reality. It is now time to take stock of where wasting and recycling stand, what our vision for the future of America is, and how we can begin to move toward realizing that vision. Most of the elements needed to achieve sustainable communities now exist in some form, in some community. Weaving these elements into a workable and comprehensive strategy is the challenge. What are the next steps?

One vital next step is altering the rules at the federal, state, and local levels of government in order to send signals to the marketplace that reflect the priorities we want. Currently, the rules governing the marketplace favor a one-way flow of materials from the extractor or harvestor of virgin resources, to the producer, to the consumer, to the landfill or incinerator. Public-sector intervention is needed to fashion a system in which resources are conserved and materials are produced and utilized sustainably with minimal environmental and public health impacts. Many stakeholders in the materials disposal arena believe the unfettered marketplace works best in solving our wasting problems. But the marketplace already consists of rules governing economic activity. In the midst of the Depression of the 1930s, the marketplace did not work for many people, so the 30-year home mortgage was invented. This changed the marketplace to allow for family economic stability. Similarly, our leading industries from mining to transportation, to banking and finance, to the Internet and sports teams, all push the government to make rules that favor their interests.

Recycling came of age in the last decade and a half due to citizens organizing at the local level to change the rules: mandatory recycling, recycling finance mechanisms, material disposal bans, minimum recycled-content products, favorable procurement regulations, beverage container deposits. This was the infrastructure of policies and regulations that brought us as a nation from 6% municipal recycling in 1968 to 28% in 1997. If we want to approach zero waste, we have to alter the rules to create a marketplace in which resource conservation and waste reduction are rewarded and wasting becomes economically painful and socially frowned upon. This Agenda for Action suggests specific policies that federal, state, and local governments might alter or introduce in order for resource efficiency and recycling to reach their full potential in the United States. Corporations and private citizens also have important leadership roles. Following the policies suggested for government, we propose some steps that businesses and citizens can take to bring us closer to our zero-waste goal. We view the actions outlined below as a work in progress; they are not intended to be final, but rather to start a dialogue. We welcome response to these ideas and participation in the conversation.

Government's role in managing discards has traditionally been viewed as a sanitation issue. But our goals are no longer simply to pick up and take away discarded materials at curbside. Rather, we aim to reduce wasting through product and packaging redesign, to develop the means to reuse and recycle what is left, and to make fundamental economic reforms so resource conservation out-competes wasting. To this end, government's role needs to shift to changing the rules and requiring internalization of true costs. Each level of government - federal, state, and local - has an important role. We propose an interconnected four-part government strategy for moving toward zero waste:

Level the Economic Playing Field for Resource Conservation
The marketplace works well when it relies on accurate price signals, but today the prices we pay for many of our goods and services do not fully reflect the cost of providing them. The prices of virgin materials exclude billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies. The price consumers pay for products do not account for the true costs these goods impose on the environment and public health. Landfill prices do not reflect the costs of landfill maintenance beyond 30 years. The fees taxpayers and ratepayers pay for waste disposal services do not account for most environmental and social costs imposed by landfills and incinerators. Public sector intervention is needed to alter the economic equation so waste prevention, reuse, and recycling can out-compete wasting every time. The following government actions and policies will help level the playing field between recycling and wasting and send more accurate price signals to the marketplace.

Federal and State Action:
  • Identify and alter tax policies that enhance polluting industries and products at the expense of more environmentally benign systems and goods. Shift taxes from income and labor ("goods") to resource depletion, wasting, and polluting activities ("bads").
  • End federal and state subsidies for virgin materials extraction, processing, and manufacturing.
  • Eliminate mining byproducts' exemptions from hazardous waste rules.
  • Make landfill prices reflect their true costs. Revise the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act (RCRA) and revamp federal Subtitle D regulations to require landfills to minimize air emissions and protect groundwater resources in perpetuity.
  • End subsidies for wasting facilities (such as tax breaks provided by private activity bonds and guaranteed markets for electricity from waste incinerators through the Public Utilities and Regulatory Policy Act).
  • Identify and implement mechanisms that internalize environmental and social costs into market prices (for example, mechanisms that incorporate the cost of disposal in the price of products). National advance disposal fees or deposits on products are two options that have proven successful.
  • Promote full-cost accounting techniques for evaluating discard management options that take into account remediation, contingent, environmental, and social costs. A full-cost accounting system might reveal that the cost of doing business the traditional way exceeds the cost of less harmful alternatives, and it would therefore provide rewards for alternatives.
  • Promote full-value accounting techniques. Full-value accounting should account for the value captured by the local and state economy, such as recycling job and business creation, local community development, and diversified economies.
  • Implement campaign finance reforms. Much of the political opposition to changing resource policies is funded by industries that profit from virgin resource extraction and from wasting.
Local Government Action:
  • Institute full-cost accounting techniques in evaluating and implementing discard management programs, especially techniques that account for remediation, contingent, environmental, and social costs.
  • Allow for-profit and nonprofit recyclers to compete with waste disposal companies and facilities for the supply of discards.
  • End hidden subsidies for wasting (such as fees on property owners to subsidize incinerators).
Make Manufacturers Share Responsibility for Their Product and Packaging Waste
Manufactured goods make up 76% of municipal materials discarded.1 Thus, manufacturers have a special duty to lessen the burden of municipal discards on local government and taxpayers by accepting responsibility for their products and packaging. Indeed, manufacturers are best positioned to alter the way products are designed, manufactured, delivered, reused, and recycled throughout their lifecycle.

An emerging movement within industry is promoting the idea that waste equals inefficiency. But if asking for producer responsibility is not effective, we must change rules and laws to require such behavior. Extended producer responsibility (EPR), based on the "polluter pays" principle, entails making manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle of the products and packaging they produce, from cradle to grave - or preferably, from cradle to cradle. EPR provides the missing link between product design and recycling - a link that is the key to making zero waste efficient and economical. Recent EPR efforts aim to make manufacturers responsible for the take-back, recycling, and final disposal of their products. EPR programs typically require recycling and reuse and often contain mandated recycling targets.

One drawback of some take-back programs is their potential adverse impact on local reuse and recycling operations and other small-scale businesses. Take-back programs may in effect create longer distribution lines, concentrate economic power and productive capacity, and further a materials economy that is not locally or regionally based. For example, if computer manufacturers are required to take back discarded computers, many small-scale electronics recycling and reuse operations may close their doors. Thus, we face the challenge of fashioning rules that meet the twin objectives of manufacturer product responsibility and sustainable community development.

Producer Responsibility Policies Commonplace Outside the U.S.
Many industrialized countries have or are pursuing extended producer responsibility (EPR) rules: Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Emerging policies from these countries target a wide range of products including packaging, paper goods, electronics, office machinery, cars, tires, furniture, electric appliances, buildings and construction materials, batteries, and household hazardous materials. It is time EPR garnered similar attention in the United States.

Refillable container requirements
Many European countries and regional jurisdictions (most notably in Canada) have made these laws standard practice. The U.S., at the local, state, and national levels, may be able to pass similar laws.
  • Denmark has legislated against the use of non-refillable beverage containers and requires deposits on refillable ones. The country banned "one-way" soft drink containers in 1977 and one-way beer containers in 1981.
  • The Finish government has set a limit for the percentage of non-returnable beer containers at 10% of total sales. It has also imposed a tax on all non-reusable beer and soft drink containers. In Finland and Denmark, as many as 99% of the soft drink, beer, wine, and other beverage containers are refillable.
  • Prince Edward Island, Canada, mandates that all packaged beer, soft drinks, and wine coolers be sold in refillable bottles.
Bans on products and packaging that cannot be reused, repaired, recycled, or composted
  • In 1990, the Swedish Ministry of the Environment and Energy, the packaging industry, and retailers reached a voluntary agreement to cease using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for packaging manufactured in Sweden.
  • Sweden has also prohibited the use of disposable PET containers, although it permits refillable PET bottles carrying a deposit.
  • A Swiss law bans plastics containers unless their disposal will meet standards for five hazardous substances (lead, cadmium, bromine, fluorine, and chlorine). This provision essentially bans the use of PVC containers.
  • In Taiwan, the federal Environmental Protection Agency mandates that discarded polystyrene foam be recycled. If its recovery rates falls below 50% in the first year, polystyrene foam will be banned from use in the country.
  • In Germany, more than a dozen towns have banned disposable products at public festivals, spurring development of new businesses offering decentralized mobile washing units for reusable dish and cupware.
Packaging reduction guidelines and ordinances
  • A number of industrialized countries - including Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, and the Netherlands - have passed packaging reduction guidelines or regulations.
  • The Canadian National Packaging Protocol is a good voluntary model and has already diverted 52% of packaging from landfills.
  • The Netherlands Packaging Covenant (1991) aims to recycle a minimum of 60% of used packaging that cannot be reused. The covenant places a priority on refillable packaging. The use of asbestos and PVC in packaging is banned. Bans exist on landfill disposal for more than 30 types of discarded materials. The Dutch covenants are backed by mandatory regulations if industry does not act voluntarily.
  • Germany's mandatory packaging ordinance has resulted in a 13% drop in per capita consumption of packaging from 1992 to 1997. This compares to the 15% increase in per capita packaging use in the United States during the same time period.
Sources: Beverly Thorpe and Iza Kruszewska, "Strategies to Promote Clean Production - Extended Producer Responsibility" (Montreal: Clean Production Action, January 1999); Scott Chaplin, "The Return of Refillable Bottles," BioCycle (June 1992), pp. 70-71; "Assessing the Impacts of Production and Disposal of Packaging and Public Policy Measures to Alter its Mix," CGS/Tellus Packaging Study-Literature and Public Policy Review (Boston: April 1990), as cited by Scott Chaplin in "The Return of Refillable Bottles"; John Young, "Refillable Bottles: Return of a Good Thing," World Watch (March/April 1991), p. 35; Cynthia Shea Pollack, "Packaging Recycling Laws," BioCycle (June 1992), p. 71; James E. McCarthy, Recycling and Reducing Packaging Waste: How the United States Compares to Other Countries, Report to Congress (Washington, DC: The Congressional Research Service of The Library of Congress, November 8, 1991), pp. 39-40; Plastics Recycling Update Vol. 5, No. 9 (September 1992), p. 1; "National Packaging Protocol," Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, March 20, 1990; and State Recycling Laws Update: Year-End Edition 1998 (College Park, Maryland: Raymond Communications Inc., 1998), p. 53.

Federal and State Action:
  • Provide leadership in extending manufacturers' responsibility for their products and packaging. Reinforce EPR with information and education in addition to legislation and economic reforms.
  • Require beverage containers be sold in refillable packaging. Deposit/ refund regulations on refillable beverage containers represent a seasoned and successful EPR strategy.
  • Institute other regulatory mechanisms that embody EPR such as minimum recycled-content standards, secondary materials utilization rate requirements, and materials and product bans and restrictions. Consider take-back schemes that will not hamper community-based reuse and recycling efforts.
  • Ask manufacturers to voluntarily reduce packaging and meet minimum recycled-content standards for products and packaging (including but not limited to writing and printing paper, building materials, road construction materials, and beverage containers) by specified amounts by certain target dates.2 If goals are not met, institute a regulatory framework.
  • Institute economic mechanisms that embody EPR. These include advance disposal fees, virgin material taxes, removing subsidies for virgin materials, deposits/refunds, and environmentally preferable product procurement.
  • Institute information mechanisms that embody EPR such as product labeling. Product hazard warnings, product durability labeling, product environmental lifecycle profiles, and environmental information labeling would individually or together help consumers make informed decisions about the impact of their purchasing.
Local Government Action:
  • Pass producer responsibility resolutions calling on producers to share the responsibility for their products and on state and national legislatures to adopt legislation to shift the burden of managing discarded products and packaging from local governments to the producers of those products. The Town of Carrboro, North Carolina, was the first U.S. community to pass such a resolution.4
  • Pass local ordinances banning use and/or sale of certain types of materials that cannot be reused, repaired, recycled, or composted. Berkeley, California; Newark, New Jersey; and Portland, Oregon have all passed such ordinances.
  • Press local government associations such as the Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties, to push for EPR at the state and federal levels.
Develop Holistic Resource Management Systems
In order to solve the problem of resource wasting, we need to address policies that promote the efficient use of resources. Most recycling advocates focus on recycling's benefits in diverting materials from landfills and, more recently, in contributing to local jobs and businesses. Few effectively link recycling with its upstream benefits of conserving resources and reducing pollution. The converse - wasting's role in causing us to extract and process more virgin resources - is similarly overlooked.

We need to break out of our narrow focus on "integrated waste management" and on our often too narrow focus on achieving a certain recycling level. Our ultimate goal is not simply to achieve 25% or 50% recycling, but to reduce pollution and build sustainable communities. Resource conservation, materials efficiency, waste prevention, reuse, and recycling are all integral components of a sustainable economy. We need to adopt effective policies for reducing consumption, increasing materials efficiency, and substituting renewable for non-renewable resources.

Resource conservation and efficiency are our upstream path to meeting our sustainability goals. Aiming for zero waste is our downstream path. Government can go a long way toward instituting a materials efficiency and resource conservation policy. Elements of such a policy would include full-cost accounting, full-value accounting, benchmarks to evaluate progress, and tracking model initiatives.5 These and other possible government initiatives are listed below.

Federal, State, and Local Government Action:
  • Broaden focus of waste reduction efforts beyond "municipal solid waste" to encompass other types of wasted materials, which need to be part of the waste reduction agenda. About 11 billion tons of materials are wasted each year. The environmental and economic implications of these wasted materials, particularly mining and industrial materials, are critically important.6
  • Adopt zero waste management plans with waste elimination goals as well as recycling goals. Become models for the private sector to emulate.
  • Require brand owners to include labels on products that show recycled content and key environmental impacts. This will help educate the public and allow them to make better informed choices.
  • Connect waste prevention, reuse, and recycling to sustainable development initiatives and agendas. Partner with organizations involved with sustainability issues.
  • Expand recycled product procurement programs to environmental preferable product procurement (programs, for instance, might encourage procurement of products that minimize packaging and materials use).
  • Establish full-cost and full-value accounting techniques (mentioned under Level the Economic Playing Field, page 47).
  • Track model initiatives so that we can learn from others. We need a formal mechanism for monitoring and evaluating developments in other places, for codifying and storing this information, and for developing inexpensive retrieval systems to allow access by citizens, governments, and businesses.
  • Develop measuring tools to evaluate progress. Benchmarks of success can monitor improvements in waste prevention, materials efficiency, recycling, use of renewable resources, and value-added.
  • Educate, educate, educate. Undertake public educational campaigns to link preventing, reusing, and recycling municipal discards with its upstream and downstream benefits and its place within a sustainable economy.
Federal Action:
  • Track the economic and environmental impacts of resource consumption and wasting. Document the impact on industrial waste of recycling municipal discards.
  • Develop a national database (like the Toxics Release Inventory) to report materials and energy consumed and wasted. Require industry to report wasted materials.
  • Develop a national labeling system, similar to the nutritional labeling system on food products, that provides factual information to the public on every product's: resource consumption, toxics generated, recycled-content, reusability or recyclability, and general impact on the air, soil, and water.
  • Appoint and fund a materials czar (similar to the drug czar) who can serve as a national spokesperson raising awareness on and promoting solutions to our resource conservation and wasting problems.
Build the Reuse and Recycling Infrastructure
The reuse and recycling industry is not new. By 1967, the United States already had some 8,000 companies with 79,000 workers and $4.6 billion in sales.7 We still have a vibrant reuse and recycling industry. Many businesses such as scrap dealers, paper mills, and textile processors are family owned and have been in business for generations. In the last decade, the recycling-based manufacturing sector has grown and made important technological advances, allowing greater use of recycled feedstocks, particularly post-consumer feedstocks. State and local policies have positively influenced the strong reuse and recycling infrastructure we see today. But more can be done. In light of recent trends that point to more wasting and a backsliding in recycling, renewed attention to building the reuse and recycling infrastructure is critical. The following policies will help develop the means to reuse and recycle discarded materials, further stimulating recycling-based and reuse-based economic development.

Federal, State, and Local Government Action:
  • Expand recycling market development efforts with an eye toward closing the loop locally (i.e., within the local economy), producing high-value end products, and linking recycling-based economic development with a larger vision of sustainable community development. Avoid a narrow focus on "waste management," which limits potential partners who can help foster recycling as a cornerstone of a sustainable materials economy.
  • Require deposits on a wide range of products. Ten states have beverage container deposit laws and several require deposits on tires, batteries, and appliances.
  • Establish landfill and incinerator surcharges to finance investment in waste prevention, reuse, and recycling.8 A national disposal surcharge may be in order.
  • Implement or expand existing buy recycled programs.
  • Launch a public information campaign that will allow consumers to make smart choices when making purchases.
Federal Action:
  • Fund research and development to continue to identify new technologies and innovative ways to turn used materials into useful new products. Provide research dollars and support to fund both the upstream process and product redesign component and the downstream material handling, separation, and recycled product development components.
  • Congress should revise the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution to give states and local communities authority to ban other states' and communities' waste (do not accord waste the same respect as other forms of commerce). This will force jurisdictions to focus on in-state waste reduction solutions.
  • Adopt a national beverage container deposit law that requires a high portion of refillables. Refillable containers are significantly more environmentally friendly than recyclable containers.
  • Ensure implementation of the federal government's existing buy recycled product procurement programs. Develop purchasing guidelines for all products (including construction materials) and services purchased by governmental bodies and their contractors. Purchasing guidelines should consider the total environmental impact of the products' lifecycles.
  • Establish a national recycling investment tax credit.
  • Foster recycling-based economic development through grants, low-interest loans, and loan guarantee programs.
  • Require building material reuse and salvage (deconstruction) in federal projects (such as in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's public housing demolition program).
State Action:
  • Adopt a zero waste goal and provide leadership, dialogue, and information on how to achieve it.
  • Invest in resource conservation and recycling- and reuse-based businesses. Expand market development efforts, especially community-based recycling economic development policies and strategies. Support recycling-based economic development through grants, low-interest loans, loan guarantee programs, tax credits, technical assistance, research and development, and other initiatives.
  • Institute or expand existing beverage container deposit systems. Amend laws to require refillable containers, starting with soft drink and beer containers.
  • Ban products and packaging that cannot be reused, repaired, recycled, or composted.
  • Require counties and municipalities to institute pay-as-you-throw trash fees. Per-bag or per-can fees for trash are a direct economic incentive for residents to throw away as little as possible and recycle as much as possible.
  • Create regional waste exchanges. A waste exchange involves one company giving or selling its discards to another company, which in turn uses the material for another purpose. Government agencies can set up and facilitate waste exchanges.
Local Government Action:
  • Adopt a zero waste goal and provide leadership, dialogue, and information on how to achieve it.
  • Retain authority over the collection and handling of municipal discards so that haulers undertake, encourage, and invest in recycling.
  • Acquire public property for reuse, recycling, and composting in order to provide a stable land base for eco-industrial parks and reuse and recycling facilities. Establish "discard malls" and lease space to private sector tenants, the same way airports are usually run.
  • Ban recyclable and reusable materials and products from landfills and incinerators.
  • Institutionalize pay-as-you-throw trash fees.
  • Support local nonprofit or for-profit mission-driven recyclers and reuse operations. Community-based recyclers are in business for the good of the community and often provide services that the market undervalues.
  • Ban single-use disposable products from public events and festivals.
  • Improve recycling levels by targeting a wide range of materials for recovery, providing convenient collection service for reusable, recyclable, and compostable materials, offer service to all households, stimulate recycling in the commercial and institutional sectors, establish incentives for participation, and educate, educate, educate.
  • Institute building policies that require reuse and recovery of building materials in new construction and in building demolition projects (deconstruction).
CORPORATE ACTION - ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY FOR PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION Manufactured goods account for about three-quarters of our municipal discards and a good deal of the pollution impacting our air, soil, and water. We cannot hope to achieve zero waste and sustainable communities without leadership and cooperation in the private sector, particularly the manufacturing industries. Businesses that show leadership in resource conservation and moving toward zero waste will reap significant rewards. They can simultaneously clean up their own environments and strengthen their internal economics. And in doing so, they can develop new technologies and knowledge that will become an attractive export as other parts of the country and world adapt to the needs of a new age.

(Several organizations provide assistance to businesses interested in reducing waste and increasing materials and resource efficiency.9
CITIZEN ACTION - ORGANIZE AND PRESS FOR CHANGES No Agenda for Action can work unless there is leadership and organization for achieving it. Since the 1960s that leadership has come from grassroots citizen organizations, which literally turned the nation's discard management paradigm around 180 degrees: from disposal-oriented policies to reduction, recycling, and economic-development-oriented policies.

Wasting will likely continue to increase and recycling to backslide unless citizens get involved again. Citizens can take the following steps to promote zero waste and resource conservation:
  • Make your voice heard.
  • Join a local or national public interest or environmental group (such as the GrassRoots Recycling Network) and work to get zero waste, extended producer responsibility, and recycling issues on its agenda (if they are not already).
  • Press local government to pass producer responsibility resolutions and to improve waste prevention, reuse, and recycling programs.
  • Press state officials to pass extended producer responsibility policies.
  • Do not buy products from wasteful corporations.
  • Write letters to the editor.
  • Support mission-based local reuse, recycling, and waste prevention groups.
  • Focus on renewable resources and do more with less.
  • Avoid over-packaged products. Buy durable, reused, recycled, reusable, and recyclable products and packaging.
  • Inform product manufacturers of intent to buy only reusable, recyclable, and recycled-content products.
  • Participate in reuse and recycling programs.
  • Compost yard trimmings and food scraps.
With renewed efforts, citizens can build on past experiences and use resource efficiency and recycling as a gateway for an ample and environmentally sound life in the United States and around the globe.