Eliminating Waste Through

Last modified: March 22, 2019


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.

Municipalities Don't Design Products

Even though 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 Containers

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 Toxics

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.


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.

1 Rudolph Hering and Samuel A. Greeley, "The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste," The Municipal Journal and Engineer, New York, 1908, p.22.
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 1997, p.53
4 Tellus Institute, Boston MA
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