Waste Not: Better Standards Are in the Works to Keep Products and Packaging out of Landfills - but They're in Danger of Being Hijacked by the Beverage Industry

By Motavalli, Jim | E Magazine, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview
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Waste Not: Better Standards Are in the Works to Keep Products and Packaging out of Landfills - but They're in Danger of Being Hijacked by the Beverage Industry


Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine


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Can something be moving forward and backwards at the same time? It's happening with extended producer responsibility (EPR), which is an evolution of recycling that places the of taking back waste on the companies that created the products, containers or packaging in the first place. EPR is gaining real traction in the U.S., but it's also in danger of being by corporate interests with hidden agendas.

Until very recently, EPR, also known as "the producer pays," had become the rule in Europe (see"In Europe, EPR Is the Law;' page 27) and was establishing beachheads all over the world. But the U.S., where corporations have powerful lobbies and the ear of Congress, was stubbornly opting out. Meanwhile, the number of states that had enacted bottle bills (creating a deposit system for beverage containers and producer-maintained collection centers) remained small. To this day, just 10 states have bottle bills, the country's best example of producer-supported recycling efforts in action.

But a noticeable shift happened in early 2010, when Maine became the first state in the U.S. to enact a product stewardship "framework" law that targets products well beyond just beverage containers-including the handling of electronics and batteries at the end of their useful lives. The electronics take-back alone in Maine saves the state's cities and towns up to $3 million annually.

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In related initiatives, municipalities (including Austin, Texas, and the state of Hawaii) started to get serious about "zero waste;' or so-called "nil to landfill" programs, meaning that nothing going into the plant is wasted--it all has a second use. General Motors says it has met zero-waste goals for its U.S. plants, having located reuse options for everything it produces.

The Product Policy Institute (PPI), an EPR leader, is in talks with the carpet and packaging industries on mutually acceptable guidelines. Some 32 states have now established product-specific EPR laws (taking back, say, end-of-life TVs and other electronics and making their manufacturers liable for the cost of recycling them). In the U.S. today, 24 state laws address electronic take-back, 15 cover the safe disposal of mercury-containing automobile switches, nine cover the handling of lead-acid batteries, 10 address beverage container recycling and nine address mercury thermostats. Hazardous products are those most frequently covered but the scope is expanding rapidly.

In the U.S., EPR is playing out at the state and local level, but is still very unlikely to become a federal mandate as it is in Europe and elsewhere (especially in the post-midterm election climate). As it gains strength locally, however, it will become a force to be reckoned with, enjoying the same kind of widespread public support that recycling has across the country.

EPR has also become well established in Canada, where British Columbia law has been phasing in for various products since 1994. The province's law has been closely studied, and less-successful versions have also been enacted in Ontario and Manitoba.

The United States Conference of Mayors voted to "encourage its members to develop producer responsibility policies" in 2009, and it has become the rage for city councils--including Woodland, California's just before Christmas--to enact EPR laws. As that city said in its report, "Solid waste ratepayers and taxpayers are financing costly collection infrastructure and programs that, in effect, amount to subsidies for product manufacturers who profit from the sale of products without having to take responsibility for their safe and efficient disposal, reuse or recycling."

Taking Responsibility: Who, Us?

Woodland got to the heart of the matter. Three quarters of what the U.S. throws into landfills today is products and packaging. A lot of it is designed for one-time use, and much of it is toxic.

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