Waste Free Economy
Movement says those who design, market and use products should be responsible for reusing and recycling them.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Former U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Bill Sheehan co-founded the Product Policy Institute (PPI) with Helen Spiegelman in 2003, and serves as its executive director. PPI tackles waste from every angle – from championing waste-reduction methods to promoting cleaner manufacturing processes and the use of less-toxic materials. Sheehan has been a major supporter of bringing what’s called extended producer responsibility (EPR) to the U.S., and his work has led to the formation of Product Stewardship Councils in California, New York, Texas, Vermont and other states. Here, he talks to writer Jim Motavalli about the promise for widespread adoption of EPR in the U.S.
Jim Motavalli: Is EPR reaching a tipping point in the U.S.?
Bill Sheehan: Yes. EPR is in a high legislative phase. The question now is what kind of EPR recycling we will have. The danger is that powerful corporations – in concert with the garbage industry and public sector waste departments – will water down EPR so that it does little to move the needle towards sustainability. If all EPR does is throw industry funding at programs that collect masses of mixed material that are sold on low-grade global commodities markets, we won’t get meaningful change.
Motavalli: What kinds of EPR schemes are being advocated for packaging?
B.S.: Two camps are squaring off. One approach is the mixed-basket-of-goods approach proposed by the beverage industry in Vermont as an alternative to beverage container deposits. This employs industry financing for a ‘comprehensive’ material-based program for all packaging and printed paper. In practice, it relies on industry financing of government-delivered curbside programs. In Canada, this approach has been implemented in Ontario and Manitoba and has delivered poor results.
The second approach, pioneered in western Canada, is phased and targeted EPR. Government targets specific product categories, such as soft drinks, fast food, detergents and cleaners, and lets producers engage with consumers to innovate new programs. That’s how it has worked with the successful programs for household hazardous products that are underway.
Motavalli: Should local and state governments pay part of the cost of EPR programs, or should corporations bear the burden alone?
B.S.: The central principle of EPR is that those who design, market and use products and packaging – producers and consumers – should pay for all of the environmental management costs. Experience shows that good EPR programs do not require any further subsidies from state or local governments. In fact, they work better when government sets the bar and then lets industry design and operate the most effective programs. EPR offers brand owners an opportunity to build a relationship of trust with the consumer.
Motavalli: Why is Congress so unfriendly toward EPR?
B.S.: I think it’s more a matter of neglect. Recycling has never been a major focus of our federal government. Ultimately, harmonized federal or national EPR policies make sense. But brand owners are more powerful in Congress than in the state legislatures.
Motavalli: How does the Product Policy Institute see its role?
B.S.: We challenged – and still challenge – services by local governments and waste haulers that don’t solve the waste problem, but perpetuate it. We think it’s time for the public to demand ‘cradle-to-cradle’ product stewardship from the companies they do business with, so that consumers can return products and packaging rather than resorting to garbage trucks, landfills and incinerators.
JIM MOTAVALLI is an online contributor to The New York Times, CBS Interactive, Hearst and the Mother Nature Network, as well as six books, including Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future.