It was 1997. I was listening to Ron Driedger, an official from the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, discuss during a keynote presentation how his agency required producers to pay for managing their post-consumer products. From paint to pharmaceuticals, Ron said, industry-funded take-back programs enabled cost-effective recycling and safe disposal of a range of consumer products. This decreased not only government spending, but also the potential for negative environmental impacts due to improper waste management.
I was intrigued.
As the Director of Waste Policy and Planning for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, and in the midst of writing the state’s solid waste master plan for my fourth time, I knew we needed new ideas—and quickly. So when I returned to the office, I told my boss that I wanted this producer responsibility waste management approach to be the United States’ chief import. I made the case that product stewardship policy could not only save governments millions of dollars, but also be good for the environment and create recycling jobs. Then, I went out on a limb even further: I proposed creating a new, national nonprofit organization focused on this new concept of product stewardship. One that would be the voice for state and local governments. One that would help spur economic growth and cut back on taxpayer costs. One that would work to benefit the environment by finding innovative solutions to managing post-consumer solid waste. And one that would get government and industry to work collaboratively toward a common goal.
My boss—Gina McCarthy—bought into the idea.
Well, okay. She actually told me to finish the solid waste plan, first. Then, she asked for a business plan.
It took months of discussion and multiple drafts of that business plan, but in the end, Gina followed through, providing the funding and support that I needed to start the Product Stewardship Institute.
Thirteen years later, Gina McCarthy is poised to become the next head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, having earned the nomination from President Barack Obama. And she brings exactly the type of leadership that EPA needs.
Gina is an innovator and, by extension, a supporter of innovation. When I started PSI, I had to overcome numerous roadblocks that a bevy of detractors (mostly people who saw PSI as a threat to their turf) set up for me. Gina, however, saw PSI as an opportunity. In fact, she became one of the first PSI board members, helping to guide and shape the nascent organization. She understood the balancing act we were playing between government, business, and environmental activists. She took a calculated risk, asked questions, and provided advice. She helped PSI move forward by making decisions based on sound information, thoughtful deliberation, and consideration of multiple viewpoints.
The EPA’s past support for product stewardship has been instrumental in PSI successes, too. This includes our national paint dialogue, which led to a major waste management agreement with the paint industry, as well as our pilot computer take-back project with Staples, which led to nationwide take-back programs by Staples, Best Buy, Office Depot, and Office Max.
Unfortunately, the EPA’s more recent approach to product stewardship has been tepid, and there have been missed opportunities. With Gina at the helm, though, I feel confident that she would breathe fresh life into that seemingly worn banner of “change” that was unfurled at the White house in the early days of the first administration. The EPA needs fresh ideas. It needs a fighter. It needs someone who will advocate for progressive environmental interests while tempering that passion with economic and political realities.
Gina is a kid from Boston with the street smarts to manage a bureaucracy that’s in the crosshairs of Congress. She’s the “anti-intellectual” who’s intelligent. She’s the tough regulator who knows when to cut a deal. She’s the baseball manager who kicks dirt on an umpire’s bad call but then goes out for beers with the umpires after the game. From local health official to state and federal regulator, Gina has climbed the ladder while maintaining close ties to business leaders and environmental groups.
I think the President made the right choice by nominating Gina. Let’s hope Congress does, too.