Author Archives: Product Stewardship Institute

In Response: The Conflict of Interest That Is Killing Recycling

The Product Stewardship Institute’s Scott Cassel and Megan Byers respond to the New York Times’ August 15th Opinion piece, The Conflict of Interest That Is Killing Recycling

scrap-metal-trash-landfill-smA crisis can be painful. It can also be an opportunity for much-needed change.

Recent trade restrictions by China have troubled many U.S. industries, as well as municipal recycling programs that rely on Chinese markets. Shrinking markets for recovered material have raised municipal recycling costs. As a result, some recycling programs have closed, while others have stockpiled or disposed of recyclables the public expects to be turned into new products.

The fluctuation of recycling markets is nothing new. But for 50 years, we have failed to recognize that recycling is stifled by an uneven playing field.

It is time to disrupt the current recycling economic model, which relies on taxpayers and municipal governments to pick up the cost of managing waste products and packaging from which companies reap the profits. To date, U.S. corporations have dodged their responsibility to manage their products after consumers use them.

On the surface, it is often cheaper to dispose of used products and packaging than to recycle them (though landfill tipping fees are rising). However, in doing so, we fail to account for the much costlier externalities. In reality, brand owners and consumers are not paying the full cost of production and consumption, which includes environmental and social damages such as the need to continually mine virgin resources for the manufacture of new products. Instead, we experience these costs in the form of water, air, and land pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change. The cost to clean the water, air, and land is much greater than that to prevent contamination in the first place.

Governments often establish recycling programs to reduce litter and waste to improve quality of life for their citizens. Unfortunately, communities are at a huge disadvantage compared to brand owners that benefit from the throw-away economy while paying none of the waste management costs. Furthermore, most waste management companies like things just the way they are now. The status quo allows them to protect their investments in disposal technologies, and they enjoy powerful contractual leverage against municipalities and individual residents.

The real recycling tragedy is not just that municipalities use different bins and labels. It is that every community collects different materials, educates their residents in different ways, and has separate contracts with garbage and recycling haulers that provide different services and incentives. This inefficiency and lack of municipal cohesion is the basis for the recycling and garbage disposal crisis in the U.S.

There is hope. Countries across the world require brand owners – such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson, General Mills, Pepsi, Amazon, and Walmart – to fund and manage the recycling of materials they put on the market. These companies, which are the same ones fighting change in the U.S., hire a non-profit to operate a network of collection and processing facilities with lean government oversight. This network leverages existing infrastructure and provides options for municipalities. These “producer responsibility” systems collect the same set of materials in every jurisdiction. They provide the same educational materials and symbols, with appropriate regional nuance. They have the same instructions and standards for municipalities and other collectors to keep contamination low.

And they get results. British Columbia, for example, has achieved a 75 percent recovery rate for packaging and printed paper, as compared to the 55 percent average in the U.S. for the same materials. The Canadian province has also reached an enviable contamination rate of 6.5 percent, compared to an average of about 15 percent in the U.S. These systems are in place in Europe (for over 30 years), across Canada (for up to 15 years), and now in Israel, Japan, South Africa, and an increasing number of other countries.

Well-crafted extended producer responsibility frameworks also reward innovation, especially for companies that use less material, switch to readily-recyclable options, and incorporate a higher percentage of recycled content in packaging.

The time has come to bring producer responsibility for packaging to the United States. Consumer product companies and waste management companies have valid concerns about change. But municipalities and taxpayers can no longer bear the sole financial burden for a problem created by societal consumption and brand owners’ poor packaging choices.

If we listen to one another, we can solve this problem together. We must understand the problems created by waste, share common goals, collectively overcome barriers, and agree on the solutions available.

It takes will, but it is long past time to start.

Consumers Spoke and the Message is Clear: Phone Book Publishers Must Take Opt-Out Requests Seriously or Pursue Opt-In Instead

by Megan Byers

Old_Phonebooks_litterAbout a decade ago, at the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI)’s urging, the Local Search Association (which represents phone book publishers) created a website where residents can choose to halt phone book delivery.

In the past year, PSI documented more than 29,000 opt-outs generated through our Phone Book Opt-Out Toolkit, a trove of public outreach materials that makes promoting opt-out as easy as copy-and-paste for governments, environmental organizations, and concerned citizens.

We asked people to rate how easy or difficult it is to opt out on the industry-run opt-out website via an anonymous survey. 74 percent of respondents provided additional feedback to elaborate on their experience. Here’s what we learned:

  1. 69 percent of respondents found the opt-out website “very easy” or “easy” to use.
    PSI commends the industry for creating a website that is easy for many people to use.

 “The site was easy to use and the link easy to share so more people could reduce the number of unwanted phone books! Thanks.”

  1. But over a third of respondents thought the process was too long and confusing. Some even gave up.
    The website does not make it clear from the start that opting out is a multi-step process. Counter intuitively, you have to register to unregister from phone book distribution. Common criticisms include that the opt-out process is too time consuming, the website is not mobile friendly, and it is annoying to create an account. Some respondents said that it would be easier to opt in than opt out, and that it felt like the website was intentionally designed to make people feel uncomfortable and confused, thus preventing completed opt-outs.

“You asked for a lot of information and it was time consuming to have to wait for the email so I could complete the opt out.”

“I gave up because it was so complicated. At some point I needed a password to register.”

  1. One in five respondents who gave additional feedback were wary of giving up personal information like their name, email address, and phone number in addition to their address.
    The opt-out website promises that all information required is used only for verification purposes. Still, some survey respondents were skeptical.

 “I hate giving out my name, personal phone in order to opt out.”

  1. 40 percent of respondents who gave additional feedback reported that it didn’t work – they still got phone books after opting out.
    It is notable that PSI’s survey did not ask about opt-out outcomes (after all, we merely intended to capture feedback about the opt-out process). Nevertheless, many respondents wrote that phone book deliveries continued after opt-out.

 “I opted out – about 5 years ago – yet I continue to get phone books delivered to me (including another one this weekend)! After each incident, I’ve directly emailed my contacts at Local Search Association and reported the unwanted delivery. Each time, they’ve reached out to the specific publisher to “address the issue,” but despite this, I continue to get phone books. Very frustrating. It doesn’t appear to be working due to either publishers not providing their delivery people with opt-out lists or the delivery people just ignoring the lists if they are provided. So 4 years of unwanted deliveries (post-opt-out) and counting…”

PSI applauds the phone book industry for supporting an opt-out website that most people find easy to use. Now, we urge improvements that would make opting out easy, accessible, and comfortable for all. The feedback PSI has gathered is a good place to start.

We fully recognize that delivering directories to some buildings but not others has very real challenges and requires time, effort, investment, technology, and good communication with distributors. But if any other service failed to do what it promised almost half the time, it would quickly be replaced. If the industry’s opt-out system can’t actually honor half of the requests they receive, we must ask: isn’t there a better way?

It is time for the Local Search Association to implement an opt-in system. This way, those who want phone books could easily opt into delivery by signing up online, mailing in a slip, or calling the publisher. Those who don’t use phone books would avoid environmental and economic impacts while keeping their homes clutter-free. Furthermore, local businesses could more accurately assess how to best spend their advertising budget and target their phone book ads to the right audience. To sustain advertising revenue, publishers should expand and improve online offerings to make YellowPages.com the number one stop for consumers in need of local business information.

Phone books should be delivered only to consumers who request them – just like any other product.

Until an opt-in system is available, the best option to stop phone book delivery is to opt out. If you still receive a phone book despite opting out, we encourage you to call both the publisher and Neg Norton, President of the Local Search Association, which runs YellowPagesOptOut.com.

Look in your phone book for a publisher name and find them online, or browse our list of top publishers. Mr. Norton can be reached at (908) 286-2385 or Neg.Norton@localsearchassociation.org.

Questions? Contact PSI’s Megan Byers.

Help reduce paper use with one click

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Unwanted phone books are not only a nuisance, but also a waste: the industry uses about 14 football fields’ worth of forest per day. They are also a burden on governments and taxpayers, who pay nearly $60 million annually to get rid of phone books.

It’s time to stop phone book delivery at the source.

Share our video with your networks to encourage others to opt out, and visit http://www.phonebookoptout.us/go to stop phone book delivery.

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Eateries in Greenport, New York Reduce Plastic Marine Debris: A Story of Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration

by Megan Byers

Greenport, NY is a charming seaside village on the North Fork of Long Island.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Vivian Fuhrman and I traveled to the North Fork of Long Island to kick off the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI)’s Trash Free Waters project, a voluntary plastics source reduction initiative funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 2 and administered by the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission. Through this initiative, PSI is partnering with four local eateries in Greenport, New York – Alices’ Fish Market, Bruce & Son, Lucharitos, and Tikal.1 – to help them voluntarily decrease the disposable plastic items (cups, straws, take-out containers, etc.) that end up on Long Island’s beaches.

When we arrived in the North Fork, gratitude and support for the project appeared from some unexpected sources.

Vivian and I first presented the project to the Southold Town Board – an opportunity made possible thanks to Southold’s Solid Waste Coordinator, Jim Bunchuck. Our goal was to lay the groundwork for developing a model municipal plan to reduce marine debris on a community level. During the discussion, the Board offered a creative idea: they suggested we create a “Trash Free Waters” emblem that the businesses can display in their windows or on their menus to market their marine debris reduction efforts.

Later that day, we met the participating businesses in the Greenport School for our kickoff meeting.  Thanks to the meeting location, teachers Stephanie Pawlik and Brady Wilkins were able to join us and eagerly volunteered to have their students design the “Trash Free Waters” emblem as part of an environmental unit in class. A local artist, Cindy Roe, later contacted PSI and offered to advise the students and judge the submissions. We are now finalizing a plan for the emblem and connecting these volunteers.

Within the following week , at least three local news sources (SoutholdLOCAL, Suffolk Times, and North Fork Patch) published articles about the project. Thanks to this press, the project received many positive comments on social media – in fact, several individuals even suggested their own ideas for reducing plastic pollution!

This sort of community collaboration is a key aspect of protecting our planet. The support we are finding in Greenport is a reminder that, no matter who you are, everyone has their own unique ability to stand up to protect our waterways.

Regardless of the product focus, multi-stakeholder collaboration is a key tenet of PSI’s approach to product stewardship and has been critical to our success. For instance, to address economic and environmental problems caused by leftover paint, PSI facilitated a national group of state and local governments, paint industry representatives, retailers, recyclers, non-profits, and others. After years of research and discussion, that national group created a model paint stewardship bill that now serves as the basis for nine paint stewardship laws passed in the U.S., resulting in 16 million gallons of paint being diverted from disposal, saving governments and taxpayers over $69 million, and creating over 200 jobs.

Marine debris is a visible problem in coastal communities like Greenport, and now a wide variety of stakeholders are ready to address it. PSI knows that this fortuitous synergy from multiple stakeholder groups will boost the participating eateries’ visibility, value, and connection to the community, and that their voluntary plastics reduction effort may serve as a starting point for community-wide action to reduce marine debris.

As a complement to PSI’s Marine Debris Reduction Toolkit for Colleges & Universities, PSI’s work with the Greenport eateries will culminate in a Marine Debris Reduction Toolkit for Eateries that will help businesses and municipalities across the country reduce their contribution to marine debris.

Megan Byers is the newest addition to the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) team. She focuses on packaging, tracking legislation, and communications work at PSI, and coordinates several state product stewardship councils. She’s leading PSI’s Trash Free Waters project.

 

Initiating the Conversation on Packaging EPR in the U.S. – the Levers for Change

As experts articulate the successes of their respective extended producer responsibility (EPR) packaging programs, it can start to sound like a “blend of science fiction, fantasy, and… a little magical realism” to some U.S. state and local government officials. What levers for change will compel stakeholders to pursue EPR for packaging in the United States?

Victor Bell (Environmental Packaging International) and Allen Langdon (Multi-Material British Columbia) point to the increasing costs local governments are facing within the current U.S. “blue box” system. As commodities markets continue to decline, recyclers are continually losing the revenue they once achieved from selling valuable recovered materials. On top of this, because oil prices are so low, it is cheaper to make plastics from virgin resources than from recovered resources – further decreasing the recycling revenue stream. Recyclers therefore need to cover their costs by increasing the service rates they charge local governments.

As these economic shifts become more pronounced, “the only way to deal with them,” says Langdon, “will be to put a new system in place to address those challenges.” British Columbia transitioned to an EPR system for packaging and printed paper in 2014 after experiencing similar economic shifts.

This 5-part video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in 2016. 

Looking for more? Watch the first three videos in our series. You can also sign up for PSI’s upcoming webinar, “Examples of Change: Packaging EPR in Europe and Canada.”

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Local Governments are Key to Packaging EPR in the U.S.

As we come to further understand packaging extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs worldwide – including those in Europe and Canada – it can be difficult to picture how the United States could alter its materials management system so drastically. While many stakeholders see the benefits of packaging EPR, including saving governments money, increasing efficiency, and improving recycling rates, the process of passing such a law can feel daunting. How can we gather enough support to introduce, let alone pass, such legislation?

According to Victor Bell from Environmental Packaging International, the best way to guarantee success in potentially passing an EPR bill for packaging at the state level is to drum up unified support at the city and county level. When local governments and the environmental community form a united front, the pressure will drive legislators to act.

While Allen Langdon from Multi-Material British Columbia acknowledges that the U.S. system of checks and balances can be difficult to navigate when trying to pass legislation, he’s also optimistic. “Now that [packaging EPR] is in North America,” he says, “it should be a game changer. The fact that EPR is working in North America … should send a signal that this is possible, and it gives you… an example or a model to work from.” British Columbia transitioned to an EPR program for packaging and printed paper in 2014; its previous system was very similar to the current U.S. system.

Interested in drumming up local support for a packaging EPR bill? Contact Waneta Trabert at (617) 236-4866.

This 5-part video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in spring/summer 2016. 

Looking for more? Watch the first video in the series, featuring Steve Claus from FostPlus in Belgium, and the second video, featuring Allen Langdon from Multi-Material British Columbia. You can also sign up for for PSI’s upcoming webinar, “Examples of Change: Packaging EPR in Europe and Canada.”

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Why is EPR for packaging such a hot topic right now?

Allen Langdon is the Managing Director of Multi-Material British Columbia, the stewardship organization in charge of managing British Columbia’s packaging extended producer responsibility (EPR) program – a program that boasts an 80% recovery rate. In this video, Allen explains why EPR laws for packaging are emerging in countries all over the world, Canadian provinces included.

With numerous challenges facing the current recycling system in the U.S., EPR makes economic sense. In fact, the U.S. is the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member nation that does not have EPR in place or in development. At the same time, there is global momentum for industries to focus on building a circular economy.

There are currently 92 EPR laws in the U.S. in 33 states on 12 different product categories – none of which pertain to packaging. EPR bills have been introduced this year for packaging and printed paper in Rhode Island and Indiana, as well as in Illinois (specifically for plastic bags). PSI is working to educate state and local governments on the benefits of EPR for packaging in the U.S. by communicating international successes and experiences.

As Allen states, packaging EPR truly is the “next step in the circular economy,” and can positively influence a product’s entire value chain from design to end-of-life.

This 5-part video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in spring/summer 2016. 

Looking for more? Watch the first video in the series, featuring Steve Claus from FostPlus in Belgium, and sign up for our upcoming webinar, “Examples of Change: Packaging EPR in Europe and Canada.” 

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Is the time right for packaging EPR in the U.S.?

Last December, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) hosted the 2015 U.S. Product Stewardship Forum, where environmental experts from around the world discussed issues regarding zero waste, extended producer responsibility (EPR), product stewardship, and the circular economy.

One particularly engaging session – “Exploring Packaging EPR in the U.S.” – featured global experts involved in successful packaging EPR programs in Belgium, British Columbia, and Quebec, and inspired attendees to rethink current U.S. packaging programs.

Packaging EPR laws require producers to cover the cost of recycling packaging when consumers are done with it. These systems increase recycling rates by providing consistent, statewide programs that accept the same materials in all cities and towns, and promulgate the same educational messages. These programs can also incentivize producers to incorporate environmentally-preferable materials into their packaging and reduce the amount of packaging they use. In contrast to the U.S., packaging EPR laws are in place in 34 European nations; 11 countries in Asia, South America, and Africa; Australia; and 5 Canadian provinces. This puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to other countries that require brand owners to properly manage the packaging they produce.

In the first part of PSI’s 5-part video series, Steve Claus from Fost Plus in Belgium – whose packaging recovery program boasts an 80% recovery rate – describes why the time is right to implement an EPR system in the U.S.

This video series kicks off a comprehensive set of resources PSI is developing on EPR for packaging. Keep on the lookout for webinars, fact sheets, videos, and more in spring-summer 2016. 

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Senator John F. Keenan: Comments on “My Old Meds” Campaign

By Senator John F. Keenan, Massachusetts Senate

On March 16, 2016, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a comprehensive drug abuse prevention bill that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to require drug companies to fund and manage a safe disposal program for unwanted medications. Massachusetts Senator John F. Keenan was the first to introduce the drug take-back portion of this bill to the MA legislature, and acted as an influential proponent of its inclusion in the final law. Below, Senator Keenan cautions us to stay vigilant to PhRMA’s attempts to skirt the law’s intended purpose.

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You would think that a group that helped create the opioid epidemic, which certainly has profited from it, and which is acknowledging that its products continue to fuel the epidemic, would offer more to help solve the epidemic than a catchy phrase, a website and a complete abrogation of playing any role in cleaning up the mess.

Yet, that’s what a newly formed group called “My Old Meds” has done. The sponsor of this group is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), made up of representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. Some of these people and the firms they represent are making a lot of money from the sale of prescription painkillers, firms like Purdue Pharma, the people who brought us OxyContin and, more recently, OxyContin for kids.

“My Old Meds” recently brought their message to Massachusetts, advising that unused drugs are often diverted and become fuel for the opioid epidemic, and that old meds should therefore be disposed of at home in the trash or at government sponsored drug disposal sites.

In so advising, the sponsors of “My Old Meds” attempted to wash their hands of any responsibility for the disposal of unused medications, and place it instead on the patient and the taxpayer. Their theory: sell more pills than people need, reap the profits, then make others pay for the cleanup.

Their message was strategically timed, just as Massachusetts was considering legislation to require that pharmaceutical companies themselves become responsible for funding and operating a take-back and disposal program for unused pills. The industry was very comfortable with the arrangement of the past, watching their balance sheets grow in step with the excessive number of pills sold while communities scrambled to address the resulting opioid epidemic. That’s why they introduced their catchy phrase and website. They wanted to appear to be helpful, to convince us that no real change was necessary.

The Massachusetts Legislature was not fooled. We can be proud now of becoming the first state in the nation to require a pharmaceutical product stewardship program.

But now we must expect PhRMA’s campaign for in-home, patient and community funded disposal to continue. They will “educate” the public that they can spend their own money to buy cat litter or other carbon products that make pills “safe” for disposal, or that pills can simply be flushed into our water systems.

We must be vigilant. The new law allows the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to design an alternative stewardship plan, in which manufacturers will be allowed to participate rather than fund and operate their own programs. We must work to prevent the industry from influencing the regulatory process. We cannot let them seek regulations that set a low bar for industry responsibility, and that maximize the share of responsibility falling back onto public systems. We must work to ensure that the Department’s program is robust and effective, not a back door that lets manufacturers again step away from responsibility for safe stewardship of unused medications.

We have taken an important first step, but we must continue to fend off the message that manufacturer responsibility can be satisfied with a slogan and website.

Senator Keenan wrote a follow-up piece related to National Take-Back Day on MassLive. Learn more about Senator Keenan by visiting his website. Please feel free to contact Vivian Futran Fuhrman, PSI’s pharmaceuticals lead, with comments and questions (617-236-4771), or visit the PSI pharmaceuticals webpage for more information. 

More printed catalogs mean more energy, water and paper gone to waste

By Natalie Nava, Operations Manager, Catalog Choice

A few weeks ago, my grandfather celebrated his 93rd birthday. He lives alone, and so after the celebration my mother and I decided to help go through his mail. In his large pile of mail were 30 calendars from charitable and political organizations my grandfather had sent nominal donations to over the years. If junk mail is a nuisance in your life, you’re not alone. Since the 1990s, national reports have shown that more than 80% people don’t like receiving junk mail and wish they could make it stop.

man shovels mailI oversee operations of Catalog Choice, a service that helps people opt-out of certain types of junk mail, mostly paper catalogs. In 2013, many more catalogs were mailed to American homes compared to previous years – 11.9 billion to be exact (catalog mailings peaked at 19.6 billion in 2007). Why the spike? Because many companies, even those without brick-and-mortar storefronts, consider “multi-channel marketing” important for driving sales. Catalogs also have certain advantages over other kinds of marketing tools; they track return-on-investment more easily than social media campaigns, and (let’s face it) the elegant and expertly-shot layouts in printed catalogs make products come alive in a more visceral way than online.

Restoration Hardware knows this perhaps better than any other merchant: in 2014, their record-breaking, 3,000-page annual catalog boosted sales for the year. But it also sparked a flurry of negative comments on social media about the paper waste from folks who had no interest in purchasing from the company.

So let’s talk about the downsides of all these unwanted catalogs. Aside from Restoration Hardware’s catalog brick arriving on our porches, it’s rare that we consider the impacts of the paper industry. But in fact, its impact is huge. As a few examples, the Department of Energy stated that the paper industry is the fourth largest industrial user of energy, behind chemical production and petroleum and metal refining. Meanwhile, ForestEthics estimates that mail advertisements generate 51.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year.

It’s important to recognize the companies that are printing catalogs more responsibly, such as Patagonia, who uses FSC-certified paper to print their catalog. Even Restoration Hardware purchased carbon offsets for their massive sourcebook! These options are better, but unfortunately they’re not sufficient. Neither is recycling, as it simply cannot neutralize the paper, energy and carbon costs required for the production of new catalogs. And limited recycling infrastructure in some areas means that about 40% of all unwanted catalogs end up in landfills without having ever been opened. What a waste!

Business Reply MailWhen we consider certain realities – water scarcity, consumer privacy concerns, or the increasing amount of purchases made online – is junk mail really worth it? At least from the perspective of businesses, the answer seems to be a resounding yes for now. Meanwhile, there is a growing movement of individuals and organizations pushing corporations to take greater accountability. This movement includes solutions like extended producer responsibility legislation, which would make companies responsible for the final disposal of their products; or a national Do Not Mail list, which would allow people to opt-out of all junk mail in one simple step. We’re excited for this movement to take off, and in the meantime, our goal is for Catalog Choice to spark dialogue about paper consumption and waste issues and help people simplify their lives.

You may create an account at catalogchoice.org to start opting out of catalogues today.

The Story of Stuff Project seeks to transform the way we make, use and throw away Stuff. On March 24, 2015, The Story of Stuff Project acquired Catalog Choice to help people save trees and simplify their lives by reducing unwanted junk mail. Natalie Nava oversees operations of Catalog Choice. You can reach her at natalie@catalogchoice.org.

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