Changing Systems: Moving to a Model of "Extended Producer Responsibility"

Image copyright As You Sow.
One of our popular axioms in the U.S. is "If you make a mess, clean it up!" Our parents didn't (usually) let us get away with not cleaning up after ourselves, and that holds true in most situations.... unless you're a corporation. Another favorite is "Waste not want not." And yet, in the U.S., our landfills and waterways and streets are often overflowing with "waste."

Where does that waste come from? All of us. We buy something, use it, and then throw it out (or sometimes reuse or recycle it). And who's responsible for cleaning it up? Not the industries who created it in the first place. That's because that's the system that we've created and decided is "normal." But what if we had a different system?

Ideally, as Cradle to Cradle authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart, advocate, our systems would be designed so that the "waste" from one process would be the raw materials for another -- so, like with the systems in nature, there would be no waste.

But, until we get there, the folks at As You Sow (AYS), have outlined another alternative -- a small step toward recapturing and reducing "waste." As You Sow is a non-profit focusing on "environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies"; they've just released a new report: Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging.

According to AYS: "Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, shifts the responsibility for post-consumer waste from taxpayers and municipal governments to the companies that produce the packaging, creating incentives for producers to reduce the amount of packaging they create, increasing packaging recycling rates, providing revenue to improve recycling systems, and reducing carbon and energy use."

AYS says that the market value of materials such as glass, aluminum, paperboard, plastics, and steel that are thrown away instead of recycled or reused was $11.4 billion in 2010 -- a huge waste of resources and money.

Extended Producer Responsibility laws already exist in some states for some products:
"More than 70 producer responsibility laws are in effect in 32 states, covering batteries, mobile phones, paint, pesticide containers, carpet, electronics, thermostats, and fluorescent lamps – but not packaging. Twenty-three states have passed EPR laws requiring technology makers to take responsibility for end-of-life management of electronics.

Container deposit laws, structured as EPR programs in eight of the 10 states that have them, are a major success story. The U.S. recycling rate for beverage containers is only 35%, but in the 10 states with deposit laws, recycling rates range from 66% to 96%. However, these laws have not expanded to apply to other kinds of consumer packaging."

Read the executive summary.

Read the complete report.

As citizens, we have some control over how much waste we generate and whether we reuse, recycle, or throw it away. We can also bring a reusable cup, a reusable bag, refuse a straw, and so on. But we have little control over the packaging the products we buy come in, and there is enormous inequity in access to recycling options. But producers have a significant amount of control over the entire process. For example, they can decide to use less packaging, biodegradable or reusable packaging, or packaging that can be returned. There are already some fun ideas out there (like the car & racetrack where the box it comes in is part of the track).

Encouraging innovation and requiring producer responsibility are just two ways to help change a system that currently rewards waste and externalizes the impacts.

~ Marsha

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