After 14 years, I have a newfound appreciation for PSI’s dialogue process.
The first time I put it to use was in the 1990s while serving as the Director of Waste Policy and Planning for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. I was on a mission to increase the recycling of used motor oil in the state. To accomplish this goal, I did what made the most sense to me at the time:
- I developed a technical background document on the issue;
- I met individually with key stakeholders;
- I brought all stakeholders together for a structured dialogue; and
- I mediated a bill with full stakeholder input.
As it turned out, the Massachusetts Petroleum Council (MPC) honored me not long afterwards as “Bureaucrat of the Year.” (They had actually intended that to be a compliment!). It was one of the first times that the MPC had come to an agreement with the state’s two leading environmental groups – the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG) and the Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM).
Of course, the agreement was not my doing. It was only possible because experts from MPC, ELM, MassPIRG, and other key stakeholder groups were so skilled at representing their constituencies and understanding the issue of used motor oil recycling. They just needed a conductor.
Fast forward to today, in my role of Chief Executive Officer of PSI, and I still follow the same process that I first developed and put to use in the 1990s! It made the most sense to me then, and it makes the most sense to me, now. PSI is, after all, more of an orchestra leader than a virtuoso performer. We blend the range of stakeholder interests to achieve a solution that is sustainable – it’s all about money, jobs, and the environment.
What we want
Yes, PSI has an agenda – we support a strong role for producers. We believe that, in cases where post-consumer products have a negative value – where the cost of collecting and managing that product is greater than the value derived from its resale – legislation is the best way to create a level playing field that is fairest for all market competitors. However, we are pragmatists who seek negotiated solutions within the parameters of a large product stewardship arena.
PSI takes its cue from the expert “performers.” We attempt to meld progressive environmental group interests with risk-averse business interests – all while operating under the auspices of an organization that represents state and local government agencies that serve the public interest. We identify waste management problems, define a product-focused problem jointly with other stakeholders, seek joint goals, determine barriers to achieving those goals, identify possible solutions, and facilitate discussions to seek a common solution. Our understanding of waste management, bolstered by our network of members and partners, runs wide and deep, equipping us with both a bird’s eye perspective of the “big picture” and a unique knowledge of on-the-ground issues.
As it turns out, a state and local government forum offers one of the best opportunities for a fair and balanced discussion among divergent stakeholder groups. It excels at raising and resolving issues – resulting in reduced waste, more recycling, new jobs, and lower costs for governments and taxpayers.
The secret ingredient
The reason is fairly simple. PSI has an essential element: 47 state member agencies and hundreds of local government members that are on the front lines of managing waste. We take our lead from these officials, and many are in a position to impose legislated solutions on manufacturers. This unique political dynamic benefits not only governments, but also companies that wish to avoid having to juggle compliance with 50 different programs in 50 states. Over the years, I have watched other stakeholder meetings fall short of achieving their goals, and most times, it was for one or more of the following reasons: 1) not all key stakeholders were represented; 2) not all key issues or viable solutions were discussed; 3) the problem was ill-defined and/or the goals were not well-articulated; or 4.) the meeting did not foster the necessary political dynamic.
On June 11-12, PSI will convene a forum of stakeholders to increase the recycling of single-use and rechargeable batteries by developing model legislation. PSI’s effort will begin the nation’s first attempt at developing a model legislative solution for both battery types, with the support of both battery industry associations. Although there are many tough issues to resolve, all battery manufacturers share the desire to increase the recycling of their batteries. How we do it is key, and finding the right path will require the blending of multiple interests.
On May 11-12, PSI will convene a similar first-time forum to increase the recycling of scrap carpet by developing model legislation. Although carpet manufacturers fully support the goal of increasing recycling, they prefer a voluntary approach and oppose legislation. Increasingly, however, PSI is gaining the support of other product manufacturers for an EPR legislative solution—perhaps because of our ability to integrate their interests with those of our government members. The paint industry was the first to recognize the benefit of working with a national organization to develop a state-based model that could be rolled out nationwide. We hope to replicate that success with carpet, batteries, and other industry groups.
What does the future hold?
As the years go by and companies understand that money can be saved, jobs can be created, and waste can be reduced through EPR laws, opposition will surely erode and support will grow. It is inevitable because that is the writing on the wall. The only question is how painful or prosperous that journey will be along the way. Will poor laws be created that result in fewer benefits, or will strong collaborative efforts lead to effective laws with maximum benefits for all?
I will put my eggs into the collaborative basket, not because of blind faith, but because of the public and private conversations that I have every week with corporate officials who want to address the real waste management problems of our society. They want to do whatever it takes to change our world for the better, for their kids and grandkids, and for themselves. But this will require more product manufacturers to seriously engage in EPR legislative discussions.
The good news is that history tends to repeat itself. Much in the same way that PSI has experienced growing success with the same dialogue process that I started more than 20 years ago, I am confident that industries will, one by one, come to the table the way MPC did in the 1990s. The way the paint industry did in the 2000s. The way the battery and mattress industries are doing right now.
When the day comes that PSI orchestrates an open dialogue with all industries and government, well… you’ll have never known a happier (former) Bureaucrat of the Year.