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April 17, 2014
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Trash Talk


I’ve been a little obsessed with garbage over the past few months. Oh, I am a dedicated composter and I recycle, avoid single-serve plastic bottles and reuse glass jars and bottles for food storage and pickling. I repair and repurpose things and try to make them last. But recently, I opened an informational door that brought it all into a more global perspective. Here’s what I learned from the 2012 report “Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging,” published by the non-profit As You Sow (www.asyousow.org).

Americans produce 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSP) per year. Packaging alone—paper, paperboard and other materials—comprises the largest single category of MSP, about 44%. Post-consumer packaging includes valuable commodities such as aluminum, glass, paper, plastic and steel, but barely half of these materials are recovered for recycling. As You Sow estimates that the U.S. wastes $11.4 billion worth of reusable materials each year.

As an organization that promotes environmental responsibility through shareholder advocacy, As You Sow points out that it is just not good business practice to throw away valuable resources. The heart of their report is an analysis of what it costs Americans, as consumers and as taxpayers, to collect, landfill and recycle this waste stream each year, and what financial gains companies could make by recovering and reusing these valuable materials. Their proposed solution is to shift financial responsibility from taxpayers to producers through public policy and regulation known as extended producer responsibility (EPR). The idea is to create economic incentives for companies to reduce excessive packaging, switch to more easily recycled materials, and take responsibility for the full life cycle of the materials they use.

More than 47 countries already require producers to bear at least some of the cost of managing the recycling of their materials. In fact, the policy has already been very successful in the U.S. with a range of specific products including batteries, carpet, electronics, fluorescent lighting and paint, and with deposit charges that have increased rates of recycling of beverage containers. A number of states are realizing success with EPR laws that require responsible recycling of some of the 65 million computers and 130 million mobile phones that are discarded in the U.S. annually.

I am also concerned about the energy side of this story, since 35 to 45% of the U.S. energy budget goes to the production of disposable items. Fossil fuels play a role in the lifecycle of many of these products, as feedstock for the creation of plastic used in products and packaging; in the transportation of goods; and in the collection, transport and processing of waste. Our love affair with disposability helps drive an ever increasing demand for fossil fuels obtained through environmentally devastating “unconventional” processes, as well as the production of non-biodegradable materials that are overwhelming our conventional landfills. No one wants to live next to a landfill, and so we end up spending more fossil fuel to transport our garbage to someone else’s back yard, out of sight and out of mind.

We need a new paradigm, driven by consumer demand and corporate pragmatism. As citizens, we can demand policies that require corporate responsibility for the full lifecycle of their products, and investment in high-tech processes that refine waste to generate energy and to recover valuable minerals, metals and plastics to be recycled into new products.

As consumers, we can recognize the value of the materials and energy embodied in what we think of as “garbage,” and confront the hidden costs of our wasteful ways. Disposability is just too expensive.