For over 30 years, I have been in the trash business. I don’t mean that I have been picking up trash all that time…because I am a policy guy. But I was the neighborhood drop off spot in college, receiving armfuls of old news, stacking them in the basement, and hauling carloads to the trailer behind our local food coop, where other dedicated recycling souls schlepped and sweated. I took my turn driving the college recycling truck, smashed glass bottles in drums in old warehouses to reduce the volume for easier hauling, and helped sell materials to scrap dealers.
I am proud of this work that I did with the recycling faithful. We did it because we knew that recycling was the future, even when 99.9% of the population wasn’t doing it. It made no sense to throw all this good stuff out.
I am glad that recycling has finally become a big business. Recycling creates over half a million jobs, saves most municipalities money, reduces environmental impacts, and saves energy.
But it could do so much more. And why isn’t it? Because many people working on waste management issues today don’t have the history that many of us do. We know what has been tried, what has worked, and what has failed. But it pains us to see the same things being tried over and over, as if it was thought of for the first time.
I did not come to the solution of EPR and product stewardship by stumbling into it. Well, actually I did stumble into it…that was back in 1998, when I heard Ron Driedger, former official for the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, speak at a conference. He made sense because as then Director of Waste Policy for Massachusetts, I was struggling with issues that British Columbia had already figured out. But I didn’t stumble into the idea of EPR without a deep understanding of what did not work and what was needed. And when it presented itself to me…quite unintentionally…I didn’t think of all the ways to keep optimizing the current system because it would be too hard to change waste management in the U.S. I thought of the opportunity to reduce costs for government, reduce waste, increase recycling, create jobs, and shape the better world I wanted to live in.
Don’t get me wrong. Optimizing any system is absolutely a critical part of the solution. But it will rarely be enough to be a game changer. Let’s face it, most people feel insecure about new ideas. It requires big change to something we do not know. It requires faith that things will turn out all right. It requires faith in ourselves, and faith in others. It requires hard work. To many, that is too much of a gamble. But without the risk, there can be no reward.
Let me say this. I do not believe that product stewardship (which includes voluntary and legislated systems across a product’s full lifecycle) or extended producer responsibility (which refers to legislated systems at end of life) are the only answers. But it is very clear by now that these two related strategies have become main policies for dealing with garbage in the world. Yes, that’s right – The World. India, China, Israel, Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil have all moved headlong into EPR and product stewardship. Is this going to be another area, like education, where the U.S. will be left behind?
It is remarkable how much opposition and resistance has grown in the U.S. to the simple idea that companies should be responsible for the environmental and social impacts from their products all along the lifecycle, including at end of life. And if done right – and we intend to do it right – companies will not end up losing, but only winning. Why? Because it is the right thing to do – financially, economically, environmentally, and (dare I say it) morally.
There are millions of tons of garbage that get tossed in landfills and incinerators each year. The high demand now for recovered paper, aluminum, steel, glass, plastics, and other materials would have been unthinkable back when I was stacking paper at the food coop. We are throwing millions of dollars of quality materials into the garbage, along with hundreds of thousands of jobs. This is crazy!
And yet, year after year in the U.S., we have experienced a growing push-back on concepts called product stewardship and EPR that are made to appear like dirty words.
Thank goodness for all the companies making positive strides, like those on the PSI Advisory Council, as well as industry leaders like Patagonia, which promotes reduced consumption and reuse of the company’s apparel through its Common Threads program. We need more leaders like these companies, which are passionate about our future.
Just as many of us knew over 30 years ago that one day there would be curbside recycling throughout America, we know that some form of product stewardship will guide the management of our nation’s resources in all industry sectors. It just has to be. ‘Cause the times they have already changed. Now is the time to bring on the Product Stewardship Game Changer which, along with other strategies, can bring about the future we really want.