Last modified: March 22, 2019
Eliminating Waste Through
Waste disposal is a major
burden on taxpayers and local governments, costing $40 billion a
year in the U.S. Decisions by product manufacturers, over which
taxpayers and local governments have no control, represent an unfunded
mandate. Municipal waste management has become a subsidy that
has encouraged the proliferation of throw-away products and packaging.
As long as municipalities
continue to assume responsibility for discarded products and packaging,
producers are sheltered from the true cost of the waste generated
by their products and packages. When producers are required to take
full responsibility for disposal of their products and packaging
at the end of life, a creative force is unleashed that finds ways
to reduce waste and increase recycling. There is suddenly an economic
incentive to design for less waste, recycling and re-use.
In recent years, over
two dozen countries have introduced Producer Responsibility programs
and policies. The U.S. lags behind because wealthy corporations
in the United States are fighting the introduction of such policies.
It is taxpayers and local government who pay the price.
How We Got Here
Our current system
of municipal garbage collection was designed for the turn-of-the-Century
world -- a world where manufactured products and packaging made
up only 7% of household trash. Today, manufactured products and
packaging make up three-quarters of what is called 'municipal solid
waste.' We live in a Disposable Society where 80 percent of what
we buy gets thrown away after a single use. Local communities are
spending billions of dollars each year cleaning up after the Disposable
Society - dollars that could be spent on schools, libraries and
other community services.
local communities are responsible for collecting garbage, they have
little control over factors that affect the cost of providing the
service. They have no control over the design of products and packaging.
They must deal with waste at the "back end of the pipe,"
with no way to influence what flows into the front end.
Deposit Systems For Beverage
Ten U.S. states
and eight of Canada's ten provinces have "bottle bills"
requiring deposit-return programs for beverage containers. Deposit-return
programs have much higher recycling rates than municipal
recycling programs because of the economic incentive to recycle
offered to the consumer who gets money back for the containers.
Over 75% of deposit-return cans and bottles sold in "bottle-bill"
states are recycled, compared with 25% in states where the only
recycling available is community programs. In some cases, deposit-return
programs have resulted in improved packaging design. In Canada,
domestically produced beer is sold in standardized bottles and 97%
of the bottles come back to the producer to be refilled (unlike
American and imported glass beer bottles, which are landfilled after
one use or recycled into lower-value products like fiberglass insulation).
Take-Back Programs For
One of the most
costly waste materials for local communities to handle is toxic
household chemicals like paints, thinners, pesticides, fuels and
medicines. In Canada's western province of British Columbia, Product
Stewardship laws now require producers to take these products back
for recycling or safe disposal. Millions of gallons of these toxic
chemicals are being collected at industry-funded depots at no cost
to the local communities - and the cost drives producers to keep
toxic leftovers to a minimum!
Recycled Content In Newspapers
In the late 1980s, many
communities started collecting newspapers for recycling but found
that there were not enough markets for the paper because few mills
were making recycled newsprint and publishers were not buying it.
When newspaper publishers were required - or pledged voluntarily
- to use paper with recycled content, the problem turned around.
Paper makers re-tooled for recycling to meet the publishers' needs
and started buying large quantities of recycled newspapers.
NEW APPROACH FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
Our current system of
municipal garbage collection was designed for the 19th
Century world. The Producer Responsibility approach tells producers
that they can no longer count on local communities to dispose of
their products. The cost of waste, when shifted to producers, becomes
a powerful economic incentive to avoid waste at the source.
In this way, Producer Responsibility harnesses economic forces to
achieve environmental goals, setting our consumer society down a
new, more environmentally sustainable course.
Rudolph Hering and Samuel A. Greeley, "The Collection and Disposal
of Municipal Waste," The Municipal Journal and Engineer, New York,
2 Franklin Associates, Ltd., Characterization of Municipal
Solid Waste in the United States: 1997 Update (Washington: U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, 1998) p. 7.
3 Paul Hawken, "Natural Capitalism", Mother Jones, March/April
4 Tellus Institute, Boston MA