Last week, in the President’s State of the Union address, he challenged the nation to tap into our entrepreneurial spirit so we can better compete against China, India, and other countries that have invested heavily in their own country’s future. He spoke of a role of government that is nuanced – one that can work with the market, where government can guide development through policies that make us more competitive.
Product stewardship seeks limited governance that sets broad parameters for market competition. It seeks a greater role for the private sector, shifting the management and financial burdens from often inefficient government practices to those driven by market forces. Managing products that we call “waste” is nothing but inefficiencies in the market. It is a market failure. And that failure has resulted in billions of dollars of taxpayer costs to subsidize businesses whose products are manufactured and sold without consideration for their social and environmental costs.
How is it possible that telephone directories are still produced and distributed across the United States at the current rate? No one knows for sure how many people still use them, although most people I talk to don’t, except perhaps my over-80 parents and a few die-hards. Over 660,000 tons of directories get plunked onto our doorsteps, pathways, driveways, and vestibules each year. Less than a quarter are recycled. All must be collected and recycled or disposed of by government and paid for by government, with complaints being dealt with by government. That is the same Government that Tea Party leaders want to get out of business and get out of the business of business. It is time to heed their call.
Phone books keep getting delivered at their current rate of excess because the external costs of managing the directories after they are kerplunked is paid for by taxpayers, all $64 million of it. Whether we use one or not, we are all subsidizing telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon, and independent directory publishers like Dex and Yellow Book. Not only are we paying financially for their inefficient ways, but these companies are not covering the true cost of their impacts on our environment. They do not pay for the greenhouse gas impacts that the production of directories causes, or the stress on our water or air as the result of factories producing books no one wants, or emissions from trucks that transport them, deliver them, and pick them up, or pollution from the facilities that recycle them or dispose of them.
I picked on phone books here because they are visible and a clear waste if no one wants them. But this argument can be made on all products produced worldwide. Some companies have taken steps to reduce the lifecycle impacts of their products, and these leaders should be applauded. Others have taken a lead on turning materials from used products into usable commodities.
The United States can be a global leader in competitiveness. We are still the world’s market powerhouse. Product stewardship can maintain this strength through the efficient use of our nation’s resources, whether they are mined from the earth or mined from our households and businesses after use. Product stewardship policies seek good governance, not NO governance. Government should not “get out of the way” and let business run rampant. Haven’t we seen that movie before with the crises from banking, housing, and credit card deregulation? The government’s role in good product stewardship programs is limited to setting parameters for industry, guiding it, enforcing against those who cheat and want a free ride, and encouraging companies that are the true leaders of innovation to succeed.