Sending Waste Back to the Source

Given that a patent has now been issued for a disposable cell phone, it’s safe to say that the United States is Throwaway Champion of the World. Recycling rates have shot up since the 1970s, but this country still spews forth more trash every year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported 217 million tons of municipal solid waste for 1997–more than four pounds per person each day–and projects 240 million tons by 2005.

So who’s responsible for all the trash? Everyone? No one? To hear American business tell it, consumers are the ones to blame for every toothpaste box and dead appliance accumulating in landfills. Consumers buy the stuff and then toss it out, corporate spokespeople claim–never mind who creates the packaging and encourages us to do the buying in the first place. Meanwhile, the EPA vaguely talks of ‘cooperation’ among ‘multiple players in the product chain.’

In any case, consumers pay, either through tax dollars for municipal waste systems or through higher prices for green products. Still, how the money is funneled and who’s held accountable can make all the difference. Take the European concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR). Existing EPR laws are complex and various, but they essentially shift the costs of collecting, sorting, and recycling packaging waste to private industry. As Bette Fishbein of the environmental group INFORM argues in Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century (INFORM, 2000), ‘Since it is the producer that decides how products are designed, providing industry with a direct economic incentive seems the most efficient and effective approach [to reducing waste].’

Her measured words only hint at what a big deal this is, even if nobody here knows about it. Germany, Austria, Sweden, France, Japan, and virtually every other industrialized country but the United States now have EPR regulations. Indeed, as Joel Bleifuss writes in In These Times (April 17, 2000), ‘With little fanfare and no notice in the U.S. media, Europe is fomenting an environmental revolution.’ American firms may not have to deal with mandatory recycling and disposal at home, but if they want to sell in other markets, they have to comply with their EPR laws.

Despite loud protests from automakers, for example, the European Union passed EPR regulations this year on vehicles sold in its 15 member countries. By 2006, new cars can contain no heavy metals; they must be manufactured from recyclable materials, and producers will be responsible for disposing of them when the cars die. The EU also wants regulations for all products containing electrical circuits, especially computers.

John Ehrenfeld, head of MIT’s Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, points out in the INFORM report that ‘It is hard to imagine a product designer, say 10 years ago, paying much . . . attention to how a new product can be taken apart at the end of its useful life. But the new realities of sustainability and other environmental policies force such thinking on firms and their key personnel. Not to change is to risk loss of competitiveness and relevance in the future.’

EPR–the term was coined by Swedish economist Thomas Lindh- qvist–had its genesis during a serious landfill crisis that fueled the passage of Germany’s revolutionary Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste in 1991 even under the leadership of the conservative Christian Democratic party. National leaders like environment minister Klaus T’pfer, who later became head of the U.N.’s Environment Program, were staunch supporters.

The packaging ordinance led to the formation of an industry-funded recycling program. The nonprofit Duales System Deutschland (DSD) developed a green-dot logo, which it licenses to companies for a fee. A green dot on a product means that the producer is in compliance with the packaging law. By April 1993, 12,000 companies, many of them with U.S. corporate parents, had signed on to the recycling program. More to the point, they started using less packaging, such as no longer putting toothpaste tubes in boxes. Jim Motavalli of E Magazine (May/June 1997) sets the scene: ‘On a drugstore’s shelves in downtown Stuttgart, Germany, the toothpaste tubes are nakedly displayed, sitting upended on their flat caps like rows of little soldiers. Each tube is decorated with a tiny green dot.’

It will be a cold day in a plastics incinerator before business interests embrace government regulations. The Clinton administration–which has opposed European-style EPR efforts for years–stresses voluntary company efforts that jibe with business goals. Even environmental advocates like Fishbein hope to entice U.S. corporations with the competitive advantages they can reap by making less wasteful products. Some American firms have taken the bait: Xerox’s asset recycling management program has saved up to $50 million, according to a 1997 company report, and remanufactured equipment from 30,000 tons of returned machines. There’s also a national take-back program for nickel-cadmium batteries, similar to the green dot system, launched through an industry-wide initiative.

But emphasizing costs and efficiency undercuts the potential impact of EPR. If it’s just a business argument, some companies will fire back that it won’t save them money; others will invoke the threat of lawsuits, trade battles, or the fickle tastes of consumers. Note that the battery initiative got under way only because eight U.S. states mandated this kind of recycling. Extended producer responsibility is not really about saving companies money, and corporate interests know it. It’s about pushing firms to rethink how they do business–to reduce the size of boxes, to stop dreaming up disposables, to revamp marketing programs, and to redesign products before they ever hit the stores.

Discuss at the Nature conference in Cafe Utne:

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.