End Corporate Subsidies For Waste

The GrassRoots Recycling Network advocates ending, or drastically reducing, all subsidies that promote wasting - and investing instead in activities that conserve resources and create more local jobs.

Wasting depends on subsidies at four major points along a linear, treadmill to disposal -- from (1) extracting raw materials, through (2) manufacturing & retailing, through (3) transport, and on to (4) final burial or incineration.  These are the Four Horsemen of Waste Subsidies.  We must address the full sequence of waste subsidies, from cradle to grave, if we are to move to an ample and safe materials economy.

1. Raw Material Extraction Subsidies
We support ending subsidies for oil, gas, timber and mining activities and energy, and investing in recycling infrastructure instead.  Many of the existing subsidies and tax write-offs were created when America was a developing agrarian country.  These tax laws promoted exploitation of the nation's natural resources to create an industrial infrastructure capable of supplying feed-stock for new developing industries.  Now tax policy needs to be re-examined to account for proliferation of waste and dwindling supplies of natural resources.  These antiquated laws and regulations substantially impede development of a recycling-based economy.  Much progress has been made in this effort.  1986 tax reforms reduced or abolished past subsidies.  Energy subsidies to the aluminum industry are still significant.  Today, virgin materials companies receive at least $1 billion in government subsidies annually. (back to list)

2. Manufacturing & Retail Subsidies
We support increasing manufacturer responsibility for disposal costs of all products, and especially for over-packaged, flimsy, and single-use products.  Currently, disposal costs for these products are borne (that is, subsidized) by local governments and tax payers.  Manufacturers and retailers must be required to use recycled feedstocks, to build the costs of disposal into product pricing, and to take back used durable goods and refurbish or recycle them. (back to list)

3. Waste Transport Subsidies
We support the right of states and communities to say "no" to out-of-state waste.  By forcing communities to accept imported waste in ever larger private landfills and incinerators, current law forces local taxpayers to assume perpetual responsibility for others' trash.  That is a forced subsidy.   Furthermore, as events in Wisconsin and other states have demonstrated, forcing communities to accept imported waste means that taxpayers who make an effort to recycle and reduce waste are merely freeing up landfill space for -- and thus subsidizing -- cheap disposal for others' garbage.  The waste hauling industry has stymied attempts in Congress to pass Right to Say No legislation for five years, despite broad bipartisan support.  We will expose their true agenda and work to pass state and community rights legislation that allows local control of waste disposal decisions. (back to list)

4. Waste Facility Subsidies
We support ending local, state and, federal subsidies for waste facilities, including landfills and incinerators.  Incinerators are very expensive facilities that compete with recycling for material and limited funds, and captures far less energy than recycling saves.  Significant progress has been made requiring incinerators to internalize environmental costs.  In the case of landfills, however, most environmental costs are subsidized by future generations.  We must recognize that the federally mandated 'dry tomb' design (RCRA Subtitle D) is flawed:  it postpones environmental contamination in most locations unless perpetual care -- and cash infusions - are applied to keep the tomb dry.  We need to expose the myth that dry tomb landfills represent a safe and cheap solution to discard management.  And we must change federal landfill regulations (RCRA Subtitle D) to require payment of full environmental costs up front.  If waste facilities are starved of subsidies and are required to pay their full share, then total recycling facilities will simply out-compete them. (back to list)

We realize that in order to End Corporate Subsidies for Waste, we must get money out of politics.

Each of the Four Horseman of Waste Subsidies have formidable lobbying and political action budgets that will try to stymie and reverse any legislative initiatives we promote to end the subsidies.  Many studies have documented the high correlation between industry political contributions and the voting records of recipient politicians.  Progress on laws to promote recycling and sustainability may not be possible without fundamental campaign finance reform.

Corporate contributions are helping to keep in place billions of dollars in federal, state and local subsidies for the timber, mining, petroleum, and waste disposal industries.  Indeed, total federal tax breaks and subsidies for corporations in these industries have been estimated at $104 billion dollars -- much of which goes to preserve unsustainable virgin materials extraction and waste disposal industries.  In 1992, the amounts contributed to congressional campaigns and national parties by industry PACs and affiliated individuals, and the related federal subsidies for those industries for a few selected sectors, were as follows:

  • Waste Management Industry -- $2.7 million in contributions, $300 million in subsidies
  • Mining Industry -- $1 million in contributions, $2 billion in subsidies
  • Oil Industry -- $23 million in contributions, $8.8 billion in subsidies
In the recycling arena, specifically, the plastics, paper, packaging, consumer products, retail, and waste management industries have all lined up, at one time or another, against recycling, environmental, and community development advocates to defeat:
  • new or expanded bottle bills, deposit laws, or advance disposal fees initiatives to require recycled content in manufactured products laws to set recycling and waste reduction targets for local and state governments;
  • efforts to stop waste incinerators and to increase waste reduction and recycling programs; and,
  • initiatives to shift taxes onto waste, pollution, and fossil fuel usage.
In short, we propose to shift the taxes and subsidies, gradually, to accomplish a transition to total recycling.  New priorities that encourage the use of recovered resources are needed now.  Let's seize the current opportunity to permanently transform the country's theory of taxation.

    Conversion to a society where waste is reduced and resources are reused, repaired and recycled has been artificially impeded by a tax policy that needs to be reformed.  The promotion of the general welfare for ourselves and our posterity is what is at stake.  Our elected officials need to know our feelings on the Governments role in promoting economic sustainability.


This draft was written by Bill Sheehan with input from the GRRN Steering Committee and a number of GrassRoots Recycling Network GREENYES listserv participants.

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