Flying high above the Atlantic on my way home from a week of travels to Canada and Scotland, I pondered how America can be such a powerful world leader in technology, the economy, and the military, but so unenlightened regarding trash. We pride ourselves on innovation, bold risk-taking, fierce independence, and toughness. Yet, we are well behind our Canadian and European comrades regarding strategies to turn our country’s waste problem into an opportunity to recover valuable materials, create recycling jobs, and reduce costs. In fact, our corporations display a fear and trepidation of the future that is downright troubling.
What is so disappointing is that most corporations selling products into the U.S. market are operating within much more sophisticated solid waste programs than we have in the U.S. Although we have made progress in managing some problem wastes (e.g., electronics, mercury thermostats and lighting, and paint), the Canadians and Europeans have us beat in so many product areas, particularly packaging.
In Ottawa, Ontario, I moderated and presented on a panel called “Policy Shaping the Landscape” at the PAC NEXT annual conference that PSIco-sponsored. In front of several hundred corporate powerhouses like Unilever, P&G, Nestle, Walmart, Kraft, and Target, my fellow panelists and I discussed the mix of strategies needed to manage all packaging waste in Canada by 2015 – voluntary industry initiatives, extended producer responsibility (EPR), and other regulations. That same conversation is not yet happening in the U.S. And the U.S. representatives of those same corporate powerhouses are avoiding even having that conversation.
As our first session panelist, Michael Goeres, executive director of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), provided the context for Canada’s national focus on packaging. According to Goeres, it started in 1989 with the National Task Force on Packaging. The issue reignited during the debate on packaging EPR that started in 2000. And it resurfaced, yet again, with the 2009 Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility and Canada-wide Strategy for Sustainable Packaging,which created a central platform on which to implement EPR laws throughout Canada by 2015. Goeres also discussed CCME’s initiative to work with industry to reduce packaging waste, which culminated in the recent announcement of the Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging, a voluntary joint initiative between Éco Entreprises Québec (a PSI Sustaining Partner) and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
In contrast to our Canadian counterparts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not consider waste management to be a federal government issue, but rather a state and local government issue. After a request from state and local agency officials to help solve the growing waste problem, the EPA held five meetings on packaging waste between 2010 and 2011 and even released a report. However, it pulled out soon thereafter, leaving regional EPA branches to follow up.
The next speaker on our panel, John Coyne, is a Unilever vice president and chairman of Stewardship Ontario, the industry-led product stewardship organization that takes pride in its implementation of Ontario’s six-year old Blue Box EPR program. Of the 1,500 businesses represented by Stewardship Ontario, John said: “…we are dedicated to supporting our member companies’ drive to innovate – to contribute to making their businesses, packaging, and products more environmentally sustainable and more readily recyclable. We lead through development and investment.”
Here are a few other things he said:
- “By any measure, the Blue Box is defined and regarded as both a success and a symbol…75 percent of Ontario residents say they consider the Blue Box their primary pro-environment effort …People like it. It makes them feel good about their contribution. More importantly, people use it.
- “By embracing innovation, by harnessing creativity, by building on our achievements and accomplishments, we aim to be a global leader in responsible product stewardship. At all times, we never lose sight of the fact that our primary job is to meet collection and diversion targets and to prevent waste from filling landfills and fouling waterways.”
- “We need to ensure that the success of the Blue Box fuels further innovation – which, in turn, will help make the program even more successful.”
Ironically, many of the same companies that are members of Stewardship Ontario are also members of the U.S-based Grocery Manufacturers Alliance (GMA), which hired the consulting firm SAIC to issue a report last month that criticized the Blue Box EPR program as inefficient and ineffective. Go figure.
The last speaker on my panel, Meegan Armstrong of the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, touted the province’s commitment to manage, by 2017, all products under an EPR system that promotes private sector initiative and innovation.
As if that three-speaker session was not enough of a contrast with the U.S., next, I spoke on a panel at the Scottish Waste and Resources Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where my fellow panelists and I discussed the interplay between voluntary and regulatory solutions.
The Scottish government has just introduced packaging regulations that are more aggressive than the existing packaging law in place in the U.K., of which Scotland is a part. However, Zero Waste Scotland, an independent organization funded by the Scottish government, is tasked with implementing the packaging law through both EPR and voluntary solutions. The recycling rate in the U.K. far exceeds that of the U.S., but—to Scotland—that rate is unacceptably low. They want to do more.
America, we have a problem. If our corporations continue to refuse even to have the discussion with other U.S.-based stakeholders about how we are to reduce waste, save taxpayers money, create recycling jobs, and achieve our joint objectives by both voluntary and regulated solutions, then we will have no one to blame but ourselves for wasting economic opportunities.
As Americans, we should be leading in the creation of innovative waste management solutions, as we do in other areas of the economy, rather than burying our future in the rubble of our own fear.