An amazing thing is taking place in Wisconsin. Not only is Governor Scott Walker attacking unions, but he has tried to eliminate municipal recycling by getting rid of the requirement for local governments to run recycling programs and all state funding for them. He has done so while showing no understanding of its ramifications. A serious public backlash has included both Republican and Democratic legislators, and the Governor’s plan might well be thwarted. But perhaps we should take a closer look at what is taking place in Wisconsin. We see overwhelming public support for recycling, but a Governor who does not want taxes to pay for it. This sounds an awful lot like product stewardship to me.
During these lean budget times, government agencies across the country have reduced staff, which threatens their ability to protect public health and the environment from the negative impacts of waste disposal. By shifting the responsibility to finance and manage recycling from taxpayer-funded government programs to manufacturers and consumers, we get the environmental protection benefits we seek, but we also free up billions of dollars that government agencies have paid to protect the public from product impacts. We also place the financial incentive for reducing waste impacts squarely with those who know best how to reduce them – the manufacturers.
Governor Walker has raised an interesting question – Why should government pay for recycling programs? On one hand, these programs provide a significant public benefit. They keep waste from filling landfills; reduce impacts from waste-to-energy plants; and often provide businesses with lower-cost materials for manufacturing new products. They also create more jobs than disposal. Recycling, in other words, creates business opportunities while also saving energy, reducing greenhouse gas impacts, and protecting the environment. And if cutting off state funding leads to more landfilling of materials, local governments will largely bear the increased costs for garbage disposal. There are no cost savings for a recyclable bottle, newspaper, or milk jug that goes into the trash. In fact, the cost for disposal in many Wisconsin communities exceeds the cost of recycling. So, if the Governor wants to pass recycling costs onto local governments, it could indeed result in a tax increase in many areas, particularly if the materials now going for recycling are disposed!
Recycling provides public benefits. But why should government pay the cost to reduce the impacts from private business operations? Aren’t we then subsidizing businesses for creating waste? And aren’t businesses passing onto government what should be their costs? What incentive does that give manufacturers to reduce the waste they create once consumers no longer need their products, along with the associated cost it imposes on society? Not a whole lot.
So, while the Wisconsin Legislature should restore funds for recycling, it should also heed the Governor’s impulse to reduce taxes and develop a comprehensive state product stewardship plan. Wisconsin’s electronics law, passed in 2009, is a good first step. But there are many products to go before we sleep. The Legislature should get cracking now on its plan.