My Journey to the Delta: Civil Rights Lessons for the Product Stewardship Movement


I had always yearned to travel to the Mississippi Delta. My young eyes were drawn to the words of Mark Twain and William Faulkner and, even back then, my harmonica resonated with the gravelly blues from the cotton field plantations, jailhouses, and trains a blowin’. This summer I went to check it out.

On the train called the City of New Orleans, chugging out of Memphis, Tennessee, I pondered my two-day immersion into civil rights history at the national museum located in the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was felled in a pool of blood on the balcony outside Room 306. The messenger died. But the movement did not. Movements ride on the backs of the people, and the civil rights movement was an amalgamation of heroic acts…legal arguments by giants like Thurgood Marshall that changed school desegregation laws…the stubbornness of Ida Wells and Rosa Parks refusing to give up their rights on a bus…James Meredith outlasting the opposition to become the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi…and the unswerving principled leadership of ministers Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy. But it was also about hundreds of thousands of people, black and white, who marched and protested, defied police clubs and fire hoses, and were attacked by large police dogs. They were willing to go to jail, lose their jobs, and fight for change. They were children, teens, college kids, adults, and the elderly.

National Civil Rights Museum - Memphis, Tennessee

But the civil rights movement teaches us that laws do not guarantee change. One hundred years after emancipation from slavery, the civil rights movement was needed to make changes that were intended in the eyes of Lincoln. African Americans had the right to vote at least as early as 1870. However, white intimidation and resistance to allowing black voters to register resulted in few black voters for the next hundred years. School desegregation rulings did not guarantee that an equal amount of money was spent on white and black kids, or that the learning experience was equivalent. Much changed with the law, but it took the Civil Rights Movement to ensure that results were attained.

How does this relate to environmental issues? The product stewardship movement is only about 20 years old, and only 10 years old in the U.S. Over 46 states, nearly 200 local governments, and scores of national associations and other groups have endorsed Principles of Product Stewardship that call for a fundamental change in who is responsible for mitigating a product’s lifecycle environmental impacts, from materials extraction through recycling or disposal. Instead of taxpayer-funded government programs paying to collect consumer products when they are no longer needed, Product Stewardship Principles require producers to internalize the costs of collecting the products into their cost of doing business. Over the past four years, over 60 product stewardship laws have been passed in 32 U.S. states on 7 product categories.

Number of Thermostats Collected by Thermostat Recycling Corporation vs. the Estimated Number Available for Collection

But, as we learn from the civil rights movement, product stewardship laws do not guarantee results. They only guarantee a foothold. There are still forces that want change to happen slowly or not at all. Although many manufacturers support product stewardship and accept their responsibility, others oppose legislation and strangle the implementation of laws once they are passed. For example, the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC) members, which finally phased out the manufacture of thermostats that contain mercury after years of resistance, now resists being held accountable for collecting mercury thermostats that are replaced with newer models. In the past decade, while their voluntary program diverted just 5 percent of thermostats nationally in the U.S., millions of thermostats containing mercury were disposed of in landfills and incinerators, emitting mercury into the environment. Mercury, a toxin that can affect the nervous system, has made its way into many fish caught in U.S. waters. Nearly every state issues a health advisory to limit or avoid eating certain fish owing to the mercury content. Unfortunately, TRC and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) has fought against the public interest to safely recycle their mercury products. TRC’s voluntary program did not result in the significant removal of mercury from the environment, and the nine state laws passed to correct that deficiency will only be successful if thermostat manufacturers are held accountable for eliminating the mercury hazard.

Why We Can't Wait

To be sure, the civil rights movement dealt with similar, but more abhorrent and entrenched, opposition. For that movement to succeed, it relied on the perseverance of its leaders, marchers, sign-holders, counter-dwellers, bus riders, and others in the ranks. There was urgency in their actions. There was conviction in their goals. They knew that they were right to demand their rights. Dr. King summed it up in his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait, when he explained how the situation for African Americans in the U.S. became intolerable. He knew the pace of change that was needed to keep up with the will of the people, and he sensed how it was at odds with those supporting a more moderate position. They needed action, and it could not wait.  

To truly succeed, the product stewardship movement needs greater urgency. We need governments ready to legislate and businesses willing to be good partners. We need outrage at companies that refuse to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products. Without these changes, we will continue to fail to incorporate the full cost of producing and using a product into its cost — including the full cost of oil spill cleanups. We will continue to have pharmaceuticals change the gender of fish as they are flushed into waterways, medical syringes puncturing workers, phone books piled unwillingly in our doorways, and packaging choking our landfills and incinerators.  

Currently, the government is held responsible for figuring out how to pay for the safe management of products when they are no longer wanted. There is no incentive for manufacturers to stop excessive waste. Product stewardship policies seek to change that. By holding manufacturers responsible for their products all through the lifecycle, there is a direct financial incentive for them to reduce waste and make products that have value at the end of life.  

Martin Luther King gave his famous Mountaintop Speech on August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where he envisioned a better world. If you are a person of color, you should make the pilgrimage to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. If you are anyone else, you should make the pilgrimage to the Lorraine Motel. And if you are an environmental advocate, you should go for the added reason that you need to understand what it will take for our young product stewardship movement to truly succeed.

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3 thoughts on “My Journey to the Delta: Civil Rights Lessons for the Product Stewardship Movement

  1. Dan King says:

    Nice connection. It was a welcomed piece on a gloomy day here in Nebraska!



  2. john says:

    Perhaps the law of unintended consequences on this topic is….many product take back/responsibility results in the products being hauled around the country, rather than being disposed of in the most (least) energy efficent manner, and since there are now a number of middlemen involved, and corporate staff and wages, it may not be the least cost to the consumer (since all product related costs are passed back to the customer).

    Careful what we ask for.

    • Scott says:


      How can you make such a blanket statement without any data to support your generalization? You would need to conduct a lifecycle assessment and cost-benefit analysis for each recycled material and compare it to the cost of disposal. Have you done that? What we do know is that recycling creates many more jobs than disposal, and that fewer materials need to be mined. Recycling is a multi-billion dollar business because it creates value for otherwise wasted products, and product stewardship increases recycling. And waste products that we want to remove from the environment, such as mercury products or pharmaceuticals, will be safely disposed of through product stewardshiop. So what is your vision?

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