Initiating the Conversation on Packaging EPR in the U.S. – the Levers for Change

As experts articulate the successes of their respective extended producer responsibility (EPR) packaging programs, it can start to sound like a “blend of science fiction, fantasy, and… a little magical realism” to some U.S. state and local government officials. What levers for change will compel stakeholders to pursue EPR for packaging in the United States?

Victor Bell (Environmental Packaging International) and Allen Langdon (Multi-Material British Columbia) point to the increasing costs local governments are facing within the current U.S. “blue box” system. As commodities markets continue to decline, recyclers are continually losing the revenue they once achieved from selling valuable recovered materials. On top of this, because oil prices are so low, it is cheaper to make plastics from virgin resources than from recovered resources – further decreasing the recycling revenue stream. Recyclers therefore need to cover their costs by increasing the service rates they charge local governments.

As these economic shifts become more pronounced, “the only way to deal with them,” says Langdon, “will be to put a new system in place to address those challenges.” British Columbia transitioned to an EPR system for packaging and printed paper in 2014 after experiencing similar economic shifts.

This 5-part video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in 2016. 

Looking for more? Watch the first three videos in our series. You can also sign up for PSI’s upcoming webinar, “Examples of Change: Packaging EPR in Europe and Canada.”

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Local Governments are Key to Packaging EPR in the U.S.

As we come to further understand packaging extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs worldwide – including those in Europe and Canada – it can be difficult to picture how the United States could alter its materials management system so drastically. While many stakeholders see the benefits of packaging EPR, including saving governments money, increasing efficiency, and improving recycling rates, the process of passing such a law can feel daunting. How can we gather enough support to introduce, let alone pass, such legislation?

According to Victor Bell from Environmental Packaging International, the best way to guarantee success in potentially passing an EPR bill for packaging at the state level is to drum up unified support at the city and county level. When local governments and the environmental community form a united front, the pressure will drive legislators to act.

While Allen Langdon from Multi-Material British Columbia acknowledges that the U.S. system of checks and balances can be difficult to navigate when trying to pass legislation, he’s also optimistic. “Now that [packaging EPR] is in North America,” he says, “it should be a game changer. The fact that EPR is working in North America … should send a signal that this is possible, and it gives you… an example or a model to work from.” British Columbia transitioned to an EPR program for packaging and printed paper in 2014; its previous system was very similar to the current U.S. system.

Interested in drumming up local support for a packaging EPR bill? Contact Waneta Trabert at (617) 236-4866.

This 5-part video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in spring/summer 2016. 

Looking for more? Watch the first video in the series, featuring Steve Claus from FostPlus in Belgium, and the second video, featuring Allen Langdon from Multi-Material British Columbia. You can also sign up for for PSI’s upcoming webinar, “Examples of Change: Packaging EPR in Europe and Canada.”

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Why is EPR for packaging such a hot topic right now?

Allen Langdon is the Managing Director of Multi-Material British Columbia, the stewardship organization in charge of managing British Columbia’s packaging extended producer responsibility (EPR) program – a program that boasts an 80% recovery rate. In this video, Allen explains why EPR laws for packaging are emerging in countries all over the world, Canadian provinces included.

With numerous challenges facing the current recycling system in the U.S., EPR makes economic sense. In fact, the U.S. is the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member nation that does not have EPR in place or in development. At the same time, there is global momentum for industries to focus on building a circular economy.

There are currently 92 EPR laws in the U.S. in 33 states on 12 different product categories – none of which pertain to packaging. EPR bills have been introduced this year for packaging and printed paper in Rhode Island and Indiana, as well as in Illinois (specifically for plastic bags). PSI is working to educate state and local governments on the benefits of EPR for packaging in the U.S. by communicating international successes and experiences.

As Allen states, packaging EPR truly is the “next step in the circular economy,” and can positively influence a product’s entire value chain from design to end-of-life.

This 5-part video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in spring/summer 2016. 

Looking for more? Watch the first video in the series, featuring Steve Claus from FostPlus in Belgium, and sign up for our upcoming webinar, “Examples of Change: Packaging EPR in Europe and Canada.” 

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Is the time right for packaging EPR in the U.S.?

Last December, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) hosted the 2015 U.S. Product Stewardship Forum, where environmental experts from around the world discussed issues regarding zero waste, extended producer responsibility (EPR), product stewardship, and the circular economy.

One particularly engaging session – “Exploring Packaging EPR in the U.S.” – featured global experts involved in successful packaging EPR programs in Belgium, British Columbia, and Quebec, and inspired attendees to rethink current U.S. packaging programs.

Packaging EPR laws require producers to cover the cost of recycling packaging when consumers are done with it. These systems increase recycling rates by providing consistent, statewide programs that accept the same materials in all cities and towns, and promulgate the same educational messages. These programs can also incentivize producers to incorporate environmentally-preferable materials into their packaging and reduce the amount of packaging they use. In contrast to the U.S., packaging EPR laws are in place in 34 European nations; 11 countries in Asia, South America, and Africa; Australia; and 5 Canadian provinces. This puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to other countries that require brand owners to properly manage the packaging they produce.

In the first part of PSI’s 5-part video series, Steve Claus from Fost Plus in Belgium – whose packaging recovery program boasts an 80% recovery rate – describes why the time is right to implement an EPR system in the U.S.

This video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in spring-summer 2016. 

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Senator John F. Keenan: Comments on “My Old Meds” Campaign

By Senator John F. Keenan, Massachusetts Senate

On March 16, 2016, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a comprehensive drug abuse prevention bill that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to require drug companies to fund and manage a safe disposal program for unwanted medications. Massachusetts Senator John F. Keenan was the first to introduce the drug take-back portion of this bill to the MA legislature, and acted as an influential proponent of its inclusion in the final law. Below, Senator Keenan cautions us to stay vigilant to PhRMA’s attempts to skirt the law’s intended purpose.

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You would think that a group that helped create the opioid epidemic, which certainly has profited from it, and which is acknowledging that its products continue to fuel the epidemic, would offer more to help solve the epidemic than a catchy phrase, a website and a complete abrogation of playing any role in cleaning up the mess.

Yet, that’s what a newly formed group called “My Old Meds” has done. The sponsor of this group is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), made up of representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. Some of these people and the firms they represent are making a lot of money from the sale of prescription painkillers, firms like Purdue Pharma, the people who brought us OxyContin and, more recently, OxyContin for kids.

“My Old Meds” recently brought their message to Massachusetts, advising that unused drugs are often diverted and become fuel for the opioid epidemic, and that old meds should therefore be disposed of at home in the trash or at government sponsored drug disposal sites.

In so advising, the sponsors of “My Old Meds” attempted to wash their hands of any responsibility for the disposal of unused medications, and place it instead on the patient and the taxpayer. Their theory: sell more pills than people need, reap the profits, then make others pay for the cleanup.

Their message was strategically timed, just as Massachusetts was considering legislation to require that pharmaceutical companies themselves become responsible for funding and operating a take-back and disposal program for unused pills. The industry was very comfortable with the arrangement of the past, watching their balance sheets grow in step with the excessive number of pills sold while communities scrambled to address the resulting opioid epidemic. That’s why they introduced their catchy phrase and website. They wanted to appear to be helpful, to convince us that no real change was necessary.

The Massachusetts Legislature was not fooled. We can be proud now of becoming the first state in the nation to require a pharmaceutical product stewardship program.

But now we must expect PhRMA’s campaign for in-home, patient and community funded disposal to continue. They will “educate” the public that they can spend their own money to buy cat litter or other carbon products that make pills “safe” for disposal, or that pills can simply be flushed into our water systems.

We must be vigilant. The new law allows the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to design an alternative stewardship plan, in which manufacturers will be allowed to participate rather than fund and operate their own programs. We must work to prevent the industry from influencing the regulatory process. We cannot let them seek regulations that set a low bar for industry responsibility, and that maximize the share of responsibility falling back onto public systems. We must work to ensure that the Department’s program is robust and effective, not a back door that lets manufacturers again step away from responsibility for safe stewardship of unused medications.

We have taken an important first step, but we must continue to fend off the message that manufacturer responsibility can be satisfied with a slogan and website.

Senator Keenan wrote a follow-up piece related to National Take-Back Day on MassLive. Learn more about Senator Keenan by visiting his website. Please feel free to contact Vivian Futran Fuhrman, PSI’s pharmaceuticals lead, with comments and questions (617-236-4771), or visit the PSI pharmaceuticals webpage for more information. 

What’s Trending in Product Stewardship? An Interview with Scott Cassel

Adapted from a Waste360 interview with Scott Cassel
Originally published on January 20, 2016 by Allan Gerlat, Editor, Waste360

Waste360: At the PSI forum, pharmaceutical take-back efforts were a big topic. What’s happening there?

HeapOfColorfulPillsScott Cassel: We’ve been working on the pharmaceuticals issue for about 10 years. One thing has stayed the same: the industry is still not keen on collecting leftover medications. But a new trend has gathered steam. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Alameda County (California) case in May 2015, leaving in place an ordinance requiring the pharmaceutical industry to set up and pay for take-backs. That’s a fundamental game changer. Alameda County—and any other U.S. jurisdiction—can require the pharmaceutical industry to set up and pay for pharmaceutical take-back programs. This was a key signal to local and state government agencies around the country. We’re seeing more interest now.

And there are interests here well beyond the environmental. There’s been an increase in drug abuse—in fatalities and addiction. Federal agencies, most state agencies, and the public health community recognize that getting old medications out of the home and safely disposed of is a key drug abuse prevention strategy. That requires funding. And as we know, the best way to fund this is through producer responsibility programs.

We’ve seen more pharmaceutical take-back programs funded by government agencies—and in some cases, by retailers. But the trend now is toward a fundamental change: including the cost of the take-back in the medication purchase price. That will be the paradigm shift.

Waste360: Producer responsibility for packaging has made progress in Canada and Belgium, for example. What are the challenges in the U.S.?

iStock_000008997155XSmallScott Cassel: Like with pharmaceuticals, the brand owners have not been keen on collecting and paying for recycling the packaging they put in the marketplace. They have opposed EPR (extended producer responsibility) legislation; they have even thwarted efforts to have a reasoned discussion. I think that there’s more interest now from company leaders to have that discussion.

PSI has been working on packaging stewardship for the past 10 years, and for the first time at the conference I heard voices from stewardship organizations implementing EPR for packaging in Europe, Canada, and other countries, encouraging similar systems for the U.S. U.S. companies sell in a global marketplace. Other countries are now speaking out, providing the results of their programs, which are much more impressive than in the U.S.

The recycling markets are down, so as local governments renew and renegotiate their recycling contracts, they face higher costs. As a result, governments will put greater pressure on manufacturers to move toward different recycling systems that will alleviate that cost burden. That, in turn—as we see in other countries—will influence packaging design to be much more sustainable.

I foresee, over the next year, what I hope will be a productive, healthy discussion among all stakeholders. I hope a few leaders among the U.S. recycling/waste management community, and among U.S. brand owners, will engage in discussions to really understand global packaging EPR systems, express their concerns about such systems in the U.S., and honestly engage on how to move toward more sustainable packaging solutions here.

We’re at a competitive disadvantage here because we’re the only OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) country without packaging EPR. Other OECD country programs are funded through EPR schemes, which all provide investment in the recycling system. That’s what is needed in the U.S.

Two initiatives emerged over the past year, the Closed Loop Fund and the Recycling Partnership – both voluntary. They received a lot of criticism at PSI’s recent national conference (not from us, but from brand owners and stewardship organizations operating in other countries) that those efforts were too little, too weak. It’s a step forward that companies have joined in voluntary stewardship efforts. They came in response to encouragement and pressure from groups like ours, and others in this political sphere.

Waste360: What other trends and challenges in product stewardship do you see on the near horizon?

9D482CE663Scott Cassel: Pharmaceuticals, packaging, and household hazardous waste are still in the early stages. But electronics was one of the first products we focused on at our inaugural conference in 2000. Over 20 states came and electronics was their number one issue. We now have 26 U.S. electronics laws; 24 are EPR laws.

PSI is now analyzing state electronics legislation and coming up with best practices, including key elements of laws that perform best, and models we’re sharing with those 20-odd states that don’t have laws, or have very weak laws. We know what those programs need, and are working to fix and adjust them. We also understand the scrap recycling markets have changed. It’s a difficult time for electronics across the U.S. The CRT (cathode ray tube) markets have driven costs higher for local governments and recyclers, and the markets for all electronics have been depressed. We’re spending quite a lot of time on this, at the request of our state and local government members and our recycling partners. There’s still reluctance among the electronics manufacturers to engage as a group, but we’re seeing that there are individuals from certain companies that we can work with, and we hope to build on that.

Waste360: Discuss the connection between climate change and recycling, and how producer responsibility fits in.

Staples' Mark Buckley delivers the opening keynote presentation on the circular economy at the 2015 U.S. Product Stewardship Forum.

Staples’ Mark Buckley delivers the opening keynote presentation on the circular economy at the 2015 U.S. Product Stewardship Forum.

Scott Cassel: Product stewardship and EPR are core elements to protect and conserve resources. We’re depleting our natural resources at an exceedingly high rate. The mining, manufacturing, use, and disposal—end-of-life management—of products contributes, according to the EPA, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions. So product management and materials management can significantly reduce impacts on climate change.

Our work ties into the need to be more sustainable and the emerging concept of the circular economy. We need to pay close attention to the upstream impact of consumption, which starts when a company conceives of a product and extends to the end after a consumer is done using it—an entire lifecycle, from cradle to cradle. We believe the company is responsible for managing that product throughout. We want that material returned back into commerce—the concept of the ‘circular economy.’ There is money to be made from these materials. So while we’re reducing resource depletion, we’re also creating value. That’s a significant trend I see: that our work in product stewardship and EPR will be understood as part of something much greater.

Learn more about PSI’s work by visiting our website. Please feel free to contact Scott Cassel, PSI’s CEO and founder, with any questions at (617) 236-4822. 

Putting the “Green” in Walgreens

By Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

pharmaceutical-take-backThis week an announcement rocked the pharmaceutical take-back community. Walgreens will set up collection kiosks at 500 stores in 39 states to accept controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs.

In one instant, a decade of advocacy work was rewarded as a principal player stepped forward to help alleviate drug abuse and accidental poisonings in America. In this one move, Walgreens validated those of us who have long promoted take-back as the safest way to manage leftover drugs and remove a health risk from our homes.

It was a long road to this point. It all started for a reason we should not forget – concern over how pharmaceuticals impact water quality and aquatic organisms. The U.S. Geological Survey brought our attention to this issue in 2002 by reporting the prevalence of pharmaceutical compounds in waterways. Studies and photos of aquatic impacts – male fish with female characteristics, infertility in aquatic species, and related environmental concerns – incited our interest in finding a solution.

But it quickly became clear that the nation’s drug abuse issue would drive a solution. When King Pharmaceuticals, an opioid manufacturer, funded PSI’s pharmaceuticals take-back website, along with one of our 2008 national dialogue meetings, we knew we were on the right track. At that meeting, we reached stakeholder consensus: the federal Controlled Substances Act needed to be changed. This law limited the collection of controlled substances to locations where law enforcement staff were present – a costly, impractical, and inconvenient constraint.

In order to change the law, we needed to reach a strong agreement among government agencies, reverse distributors, and other stakeholders on two specific points: how we defined the problem and what specific language we recommended to change the law. We met with the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration to solidify a unified message, and wrote testimony that synthesized concerns and recommendations. In 2010, the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act was enacted.

But that was only the first step. From there, PSI held multiple stakeholder calls and meetings to provide input into implementing the DEA regulations that would eventually put the new law into action. When DEA finally released its final rule in late 2014, some stakeholders remained skeptical. They questioned whether the rule went far enough, if it created unintended loopholes, and why pharmacies didn’t jump in to start collecting soon after the rule was announced. PSI, therefore, set out to find pioneering pharmacists who were collecting controlled substances under the new rule, like Monty Scheele of Four Star Drug in Nebraska, who enthusiastically explained on one of our national webinars how easy it is to collect old drugs and how beneficial it is for business.

Obviously, Walgreens was listening to pharmacists like Monty Scheele. They responded to the drum beat of requests from an ever-expanding group of take-back advocates, as well as ONDCP and DEA, who made it clear that pharmacy collection was a main goal all along when they changed the regulations.

A decade ago, King County, Washington started an epic pilot program for non-controlled substances at Bartell Drugs, a pharmacy in Seattle. Dave Galvin, one of the County’s pilot program leaders, always said: “Most people don’t go to their police station voluntarily, but they do go to the neighborhood pharmacy.”

It’s been a long journey, one that took perseverance and hope. But simple truths are hard to keep submerged. Customers are neighbors, and they will stay loyal to your pharmacy if you help alleviate a pressing community problem.

It was only a matter of time until a major initiative like this one was bound to occur. A decade isn’t so long, after all.

Learn more about PSI’s work on pharmaceuticals by visiting our website. Please feel free to contact Vivian Futran Fuhrman, PSI’s pharmaceuticals lead, with comments and questions (617-236-4771). 

Best Buy Bids Farewell to Free TV & Computer Recycling – Further Sign of Trouble for U.S. E-Scrap Recovery

By Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

electronics-recyclingBest Buy’s recent announcement that it will start charging $25 to recycle each TV and computer monitor indicates that the already stressed U.S. electronics collection infrastructure has gotten worse.

We can hardly blame Best Buy or any other collector that stepped up to make recycling easier for consumers. Back in 2004, when not a single retailer was collecting electronics equipment, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) teamed with Staples and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start the first computer take-back program in the country. Five years later, motivated by state extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, Best Buy took Staples’ computer-only program a big step further to collect both computers and TVs, becoming one of the most convenient locations for consumers to return their used electronic equipment nationwide.

But times have changed. Costs increased, electronics recycling programs became more robust, and vast quantities of higher cost e-scrap are now being collected – changes that have revealed a lack of commitment from most electronics manufacturers to assume responsibility for collecting and recycling used electronics.

With its recent announcement, Best Buy stated that it “should not be the sole e-cycling provider in any given area, nor should we assume the entire cost.” To be sure, some manufacturers did voluntarily step up to fill the infrastructure void over the past decade. In 2004, Dell, in partnership with Goodwill, and HP announced free nationwide electronics take-back programs. Samsung and LG followed suit in 2008. Unfortunately, these programs were limited, leaving Best Buy’s program to cover the brunt of the cost.

Isn’t it ironic? For the past 15 years, collectively, we successfully educated our citizens about the dangers of mismanaging electronics – about youth using acids to burn off toxic metals in countries without adequate environmental and health protection; about the millions of tons of resources that are buried or burned when not recycled, and which must be mined again, creating double the environmental impact; about the lost recycling jobs that are desperately needed by working families; and about the hundreds of millions of dollars that taxpayers and governments must pay to manage the waste from a multi-billion dollar industry.

We all thought we were on the right track, with EPR laws passed in half the U.S. states, some passed with manufacturer support. Resources were conserved, jobs created, and money saved. The public truly caught on – and genuinely appreciated our programs.

But those darn markets had to spoil everything. Well-meaning citizens who today know to “do the right thing” are now effectively being told by manufacturers that they don’t really want them to recycle so much after all. The message the manufacturers convey is that recycling is good, but it should slow down. Or someone else needs to pay for it.

Recyclers, local governments, and a few retailers are doing their part to collect and divert massive quantities of valuable commodities from disposal. But many manufacturers are no longer willing to cover the costs associated with the proper management of their products at end of life. Recyclers must choose between losing money indefinitely, significantly cutting costs, or going out of business. Local governments, whose residents rely on them for trash and recycling services, are now faced with increased electronics recycling costs – costs they didn’t budget for.  Before, government officials directed residents to Best Buy as a convenient alternative to recycle electronics. What will they tell their residents now?

Best Buy stands out for its importance in the electronics collection infrastructure in the US. They collect more than any other manufacturer-sponsored program, providing a convenience to consumers unsurpassed by other locations. Even in states with EPR laws, which were intended to hold all brand owners responsible for recycling the electronics they produce, Best Buy has borne more than its fair share of recycling costs, consistently collecting far more material than was required. For example, in 2014, Best Buy recycled more than three times the amount of e-scrap it was obligated to collect in Illinois; more than 4 times its obligation in Wisconsin; and in Minnesota, company officials report that they collect one-quarter to one-third of all electronics recycled in the state – well beyond its market share.

One thing is clear – it’s time to revisit the nation’s 25 state e-scrap laws to ensure that all manufacturers are equally responsible for electronics recycling. PSI and our state and local government members understand the complexities and variations in programs nationally, and are working to find fair solutions for all. Since the first electronics recycling law passed in 2004, the dialogue has drifted away from manufacturers taking full responsibility and internalizing the costs of end-of-life materials management. Instead, arguments revolve around how high targets should be, how much manufacturers should pay, and what products they should cover. Past voluntary and legislatively supported commitments made by manufacturers have eroded. They resist attempts to incorporate recycling costs into product price, and instead want to pass these costs on to someone else.

Best Buy’s original program is what we need more of in the US – national, no cost, hassle-free product take-back. Their industry colleagues need to match that commitment; Best Buy can no longer be expected to go it alone.

To PSI, Best Buy’s move represents a call to action. Let’s work to improve these programs so they support responsible actors like Best Buy, raise expectations of other manufacturers, and meet increasing demand for consumer electronics recycling.

Learn more about PSI’s electronics work by visiting our website. Please feel free to contact Waneta Trabert, PSI’s electronics lead, with comments and questions (617-236-4866). 

About Those ‘8 Points About PSI’

By Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

mobile-phone-1425375-1600x1200In Waste360’s “Eight Points about PSI’s Phone Directory Sustainability Report,” the National Waste & Recycling Association’s (NWRA’s) Chaz Miller denounces PSI’s latest Sustainability Report Card for Telephone Directory Publishers as not making a “convincing case that [yellow pages phone books] are causing a problem.”

Well, we’re pretty convinced there’s a problem – in both accountability and sustainability.

Here’s why:

Miller states, “clearly you need some real data on the amount of directories and what the recovery rate is…”

The data the Local Search Association (LSA) cites publicly – a 67% recycling rate – combines many types of printed paper including newspaper recycling, making it impossible to understand where phone books lie. The last time the U.S. EPA measured the recycling rate of telephone directories alone (in 2009), the rate was 37%. We would love to find out the current recovery rate of telephone directories, and acknowledge any improvement.

The lack of publicly available data also paints a picture – publishers are happy to greenwash the public with vague statements about using sustainable paper, but unwilling to give the real data to back up their claims, despite PSI’s multiple requests for information.

In making use of what data is available, PSI found that only 23% of major publishers use paper from “sustainably managed forests” (and none identify a specific certification program); 15% offer support for recycling infrastructure; and only 31% of publishers specify the percentage of recycled content paper used in their books.

Miller states, regarding directories, “They’re absolutely invaluable for the white paper aspect… they’re trying to deliver information people can use. It’s a little imperious for PSI to say ‘it’s my way or the highway.’”

PSI believes that phone books do deliver information people can use, and by advocating for opt-in and opt-out programs, we seek to ensure that people who want phone books continue to receive them.

However, we also believe that all businesses have a responsibility to manage their products sustainably.

That is the goal of this report card: to shine light on those publishers following best practices in sustainability, and to encourage others to follow their lead. We have engaged with the industry in the past, holding a stakeholder meeting in 2008 and 2009. We’d like to do it again.

In short, we are more than happy to cooperate with the publishers to increase sustainability and transparency– if they are willing.

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A is for Accountability: First in the Phone Book?

phonebookwithfingers.pgBy Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

My father was a small businessman. He ran a four-person employment agency called Able Careers in Hackensack, New Jersey, and was proud of the jobs he got for his people. Each week, I watched him meticulously cut his advertisements out of the newspaper to make sure they were displayed correctly. And, of course, he was listed in the Yellow Pages. Able Careers was right at the top of the A column in the book under Employment Agencies.

That was then. When multiple phone books were stacked on everyone’s desk, and they were the bible for people, places, and things.

I don’t need to tell you that those days are over. But what has not stopped is the continuous printing and distribution of these books, which are often unwanted and not needed. Apparently, directory publishers have not found a way to match the advertising revenue over the internet that they make on printed directories. So they make them, and dump them on our doorsteps.

About ten years ago, PSI and our local and state government members educated the industry about how these books cost local governments about $60 million in management costs. Whether recycled or disposed, there is a cost to deal with phone books. And taxpayers pick up the tab for the industry. To their credit, and in response to PSI’s requests, the phone book industry developed an online system for residents to opt out of receiving the books. Unfortunately, PSI is still receiving citizen complaints. Only two publishers track opt out requests, and no one knows if they are being honored.

We asked the industry to discuss this with us. But, ever since they won a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, which wanted the industry to pay for developing its more robust opt out system a few years back, the industry association has shut down. They have stonewalled us.

In 2014, PSI decided to grade directory publishers on their sustainability efforts in three categories: opt out (including transparency); sustainable production (paper, ink); and recycling (education/financing). The Local Search Association (LSA) responded by not addressing any of the information in our report card, instead putting out a sustainability report that made unsubstantiated claims.

This year, we figured we would give the industry another chance to redeem themselves, and let them know we were again going to create a Sustainability Report Card to seek industry best practices on phone book sustainability.

Again, we were stonewalled. The response to our well researched report, delivered by Wesley Young of the LSA, was a flimsy infographic claiming that publishers reduced paper use over their lifetime and claiming an inflated recycling rate that they did not substantiate. Keep America Beautiful’s Brenda Pulley joined the LSA’s greenwashing efforts with a quote supporting them as a great partner (LSA funds KAB as a sponsor in the $5,000-$9,999 category).

Those of us in the environmental business know that there are entrenched interests, like directory publishers, who want to uphold the status quo and do not want outside forces, like PSI, meddling with their business. We are used to the climate change deniers, who would rather drown from melting icecaps than make decisions using sound data.

We expect this from dying industries like the LSA that cling to outdated ideas and fail to innovate. But what is their responsibility to you, the rest of America, which has to pay the price of phone books that are dumped on your doorstep?

Let’s face it, phone books are not the Number 1 environmental priority. I know that. They know that. But is this the way that industries should respond when presented with the fact that they are harming us? Why do we have to clean up their mess? And when we offer to help them, why are we met with greenwashing that evades the issues?

PSI has taken action. We have gathered the facts, which point to changes needed by publishers, even as some are following best practices. And we have presented them to you.

Now, what are you going to do about it?

Let Neg Norton at the LSA know what you think of his industry’s greenwashing. And while you’re at it, let Jennifer Jehn know that their funding from the LSA isn’t worth the harm it does to Keep America Beautiful’s reputation. Thank you.

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