Tag Archives: government

Product Stewardship: Times Have Changed in the U.S.A.

For those of us in the environmental movement, it might seem as if we are on a long hike, which keeps going and going and going, from peak to peak, and valley to valley. The landscape looks familiar, the challenges commonplace. There are times to rest, and times to move, times to seek shelter, and times to book it across wide open fields. And then there are times when you sit back and notice that you have come a long way, and that the process was enjoyable, and that the long days of trudging in mud got you to a place of beauty, and that the view is nothing like you could have imagined.

On July 1, I attended an event at a Sherwin Williams paint store in Branford, Connecticut, to mark the start of Connecticut’s paint stewardship program. Before Governor Dannel Malloy placed the first gallon of paint into the collection container, he spoke of the importance of keeping paint out of our storm drains and the Long Island Sound, and praised the industry for their product stewardship efforts. Dan Esty, Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, talked about the “new world of product stewardship” and how the paint program kick off represents the “next step in Connecticut’s move to building the waste management system of the 21st Century.”


Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy places a can of paint in a recycling bin in a symbolic kick-off to the PaintCare Program. (L to R: American Coatings Association President Andy Doyle; Connecticut State Sen. Ed Meyer; Connecticut State Rep. Pat Widlitz; and Gov. Dannel Malloy.)

One after the other, speakers walked to the makeshift podium at the corner of the paint store, amidst the colored strips of lavender and mauve, and praised the new paint program and its ability to save resources, save money, and create jobs.

There was a good feeling, and rolling out right in front of me, like a video documentary, was a paradigm shift of immense proportions, as Important People, from the Governor and his Administration, to key legislators, retailers, and paint manufacturers, praised the collaborative nature of this innovative program.


(L to R: Sherwin-Williams District Manager Tom Kelly; Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy; Connecticut State Rep. Pat Widlitz; Connecticut Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Etsy; Connecticut Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection Environmental Analyst Tom Metzner; Product Stewardship Institute Chief Executive Officer Scott Cassel)

Tom Kelly, Sherwin Williams District Manager, mentioned the calls he already received on the first day of the program from residents seeking a place to bring leftover paint. “They come in just to drop off paint, but then see a clean store, and that we have what they need, and they leave a customer,” he said. Andy Doyle, President of the American Coatings Association, pledged the “support and backing of America’s paint industry” to recycle all the state’s leftover paint. The two chief bill sponsors – Sen. Ed Meyer and Rep. Patricia Widlitz – applauded the Governor and his team, as well as the industry, for their collaborative approach to finding a solution to a significant environmental problem, calling it “something really special.” They talked about the “terrific concept of producer responsibility” in which “paint manufacturers come up with their own plan to recycle.” State Rep. Lonnie Reed said that “…building in recycling and end-of-life elements into all of our products is important, and a sign of things to come.”


(L to R: American Coatings Association President Andy Doyle; Product Stewardship Institute Chief Executive Officer Scott Cassel)

As I stood there listening, it struck me that product stewardship has become commonplace in Connecticut. PSI laid the groundwork for paint product stewardship in Connecticut and across the nation by convening paint manufacturers, retailers, state and local governments, and others in national meetings to hash out the agreements that led to this very moment. But the paint program in Connecticut would not have happened if each of the local stakeholders at that press event did not seize on the opportunity they were presented. The paint industry has now transformed itself from an industry that once saw consumers as the reason for leftover paint to one that has taken a leadership role to make sure leftover paint is recycled.

As our nation debates immigration reform, marriage equality, and voting rights, we can all sense shifts in public opinion that represent sea changes of immense proportion. This year marks a watershed moment in the product stewardship movement. To date, eight producer responsibility laws have passed this past year on four products in eight states: pharmaceuticals (Alameda County, CA; King County, WA); paint (Maine, Minnesota, and Vermont); mattresses (Connecticut and Rhode Island); and thermostats (New York). No, the entire country has not embraced producer responsibility; that will take decades. But we now have Governors and Commissioners speaking about an industry’s responsibility to manage its own waste, and an industry speaking glowingly about its partnership with regulatory agencies that allow it to assume its rightful responsibility.

This is the paradigm shift that many of us predicted in 2000 when the Product Stewardship Institute was created on that cold December day in Boston when over 100 government officials assembled to talk about a little known concept called product stewardship.

The times have changed. Sometimes it is nice to sit back and enjoy the show, and revel in the enjoyment that your hard work has provided to others. For many of us, now is that time.

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Comfortable in an Uncomfortable Space

Last weekend I had the joy and good fortune to watch my daughter graduate from college. Few of my previous life experiences have matched that prideful day.

At Wesleyan University, on commencement day, a commitment to social justice dripped from each graduate’s gown. A stream of red and black marched by the round-topped star-gazing observatory as African drummers pounded soulful renderings under a tent. Professors and other dignitaries mingled around lawn chairs, and flags whipped in the cold wind.

Receiving an honorary degree was former Wesleyan graduate, Majora Carter, whose efforts to economically revitalize poor urban areas are profoundly “Wes.” So was her speech. Her message: Get ready to be uncomfortable. That’s right! Anyone who wants to shake up the status quo will have enemies, even brutal opposition. You will know who your friends aren’t, she said.

As someone who wears product stewardship lenses inside his glintertwined arrowsasses, the message resonated with what I say about PSI – we are comfortable in an uncomfortable space – occupying a crevice of real estate between government, industry, and environmental groups. Most of the time, the positions we take are downright uncomfortable, at times going head to head with some of our own government members; other times trying to motivate brand owners that are convinced they know the answer even when no data exist; and other times getting smashed by environmental activists for being too close to business.

Over the past 13 years, this space has yielded dividends. In the past two weeks, three new producer responsibility laws have passed – Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation mattress law, and paint laws in Minnesota and Vermont (the 5th and 6th states to pass paint stewardship legislation so far). These laws do not pass solely because of PSI. In many ways, they would never pass if it was all up to us, or up to any one stakeholder. It takes a strong coalition that gets built over time. Starting and maintaining those coalitions is what PSI does – and it often starts in a very uncomfortable place, where we need to convince all stakeholders that the heavy lifting needed to change the status quo is worth the effort.

Thanks to all of our partners for great success these past two weeks, and we hope for many more victories that result in resource savings, job creation, and taxpayer savings. I am starting to like this feeling of being a little less uncomfortable.

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Gina McCarthy: A Blast from the Past, An Administrator for the Future

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.

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America the Fearful: Why We Need U.S. Corporate Leadership

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.

September 28, 2012—Scott Cassel speaks at PAC NEXT in Ottawa, Ontario.

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.

September 28, 2012—PAC NEXT panelists at Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Ontario.

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.

Oct. 3, 2012 — Scott Cassel speaks in Glasgow, Scotland about PSI’s experience forging agreements between stakeholders for both voluntary and regulatory product stewardship programs.

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.

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In Search of Honest Dialogue: Six Stages of Industry Grief

The Product Stewardship Institute was founded in 2000 to establish cooperative agreements with stakeholders to reduce the lifecycle health and environmental impacts from consumer products. Most advocates at the time pointed their fingers only at producers, suggesting that the responsibility was solely theirs. Instead, PSI said the responsibility was shared among all stakeholders, but that producers had primary responsibility for financing and managing the system. This nuanced framing of the product stewardship movement as having a lead actor with a strong supporting cast helped the movement take hold in the U.S.

Over the past decade, PSI has knocked on the proverbial door of over 15 industry sectors and offered to work collaboratively to reduce the unintended lifecycle impacts resulting from their products. Companies, like the people who run them, have responded in a variety of ways. These responses usually fit within a trajectory of perspectives that reflects the culture of the industry sector and the individuals who lead them. Whether and how these perspectives change through discourse is also a reflection of the industry, its leadership, and external influence and circumstances. In general, PSI’s experience is that the perspective of most industry sectors proceeds along the following path during the course of a dialogue: (1) there is no problem; (2) government should do more to address the problem; (3) more funding is not needed; (4) government programs should be paid for through a visible consumer fee; (5) industry programs are more efficient so the private sector should take programmatic control; (6) don’t hold us responsible for meeting performance goals.

Of the industries we work with, only two manufacturers – paint and rechargeable batteries – have fully engaged government, and both were responding to the threat of legislation. Perhaps the paint industry learned from previous legislative battles on lead paint and volatile organic compounds and saw how it could benefit from the unified national process that PSI offered. Maybe the rechargeable battery industry learned that collaboration with governments was needed to implement its own voluntary producer responsibility program. Whatever the case, the rest of the industries have either refused to engage in a constructive dialogue about the problems caused by their products or they engaged for a period of time, sometimes up to six years, before digging in against further discussion.

The six phases above have been called Industry Stages of Grief by my colleagues in the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment. These phases represent the progression of perspectives that most corporate executives go through when they are confronted with problems caused by their products. No company likes to be told that their products cause pollution and add to the financial strain of governments. None wants to be asked to change its business practices, since change will always mean an investment of resources. The key is whether a company or an industry sector is willing to learn, and also believes it can convince other stakeholders of its viewpoint. I have found that all stakeholders have the potential to change their positions once they engage in dialogue. This change of perspectives happened at every one of PSI’s dialogues, no matter which industry sector we engaged. Government officials learned as much as their industry colleagues, and all positions were influenced as a result.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing now is a merging of companies into Corporate America that believes that it doesn’t need to engage, doesn’t need to listen, and doesn’t need to do very much of anything it doesn’t want to do. And this is a very dangerous place for them to be. Remember the car companies that fought against fuel efficiency standards for so long and so hard that they lost out to foreign auto makers that figured out how to make high quality fuel efficient vehicles? That is what is taking place right before our eyes with regard to the use of natural resources in consumer products. Our industries are saying Hell No to any regulation, even if it means a level playing field for each one of them to compete for recovering valuable materials. If they keep up their antics, they are destined to end up in the auto junkyard and waste yet another opportunity. And guess who will be clamoring for a government bailout when they wake up?

To be sure, there are companies that are engaging with external stakeholders and have figured out how to make social and environmental sustainability a key component of their business models. For many others, it is difficult to break from the pack.

The Industry Stages of Grief outlined above is a general guide. Manufacturers enter at different places along this trajectory, and proceed at different speeds. All stakeholder viewpoints must evolve to some degree for negotiations to be successful. It takes a commitment of resources for groups of individuals who represent divergent viewpoints to jointly embrace a common idea. There is a dynamic tension that occurs in negotiations. For the dialogue to succeed, the pace of change must meet the expectations of the stakeholders, particularly the governments that now pay a huge cost to manage waste. Progress must be fast enough to keep them from unilaterally legislating. On the other hand, if these regulators proceed too quickly, before strong coalitions can be formed to support the desired changes, they risk not only alienating the industry groups they want to engage but other key stakeholders as well.

Gilles Goddard, an industry representative from Canada, uses the following phrase to capture the delicate dance of negotiations: “You can’t pull a flower to make it grow.” Negotiations take time, perseverance, and the right individuals who want to reach an agreement. Timing is a key element. If government pushes too hard or pulls too fast, it can ruin the chance for success. But if industry moves too slowly, it can also sour the opportunity for an agreement, and result in unilateral government legislation.

Honest dialogue anyone? Is there anybody out there?

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It is Time for Balance Between Government Regulation and Free Market Economy

That Used to Be Us. The title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book sounds like a deep dark downer. Instead it is a wonderful framing of problems we face as a nation and the steps we must take to get back in the driver’s seat. As with many large macro-scale issues affecting our nation, we can also see them reflected at a micro-scale, in this case in the product stewardship movement. And, not surprisingly, the authors plead for producer responsibility policies in the U.S. to capture lost jobs to China, highlighting the plight of one California-based electronics recycler, Mike Biddle of MBA Polymers.

Written with Michael Mandelbaum, the book’s thesis is “…that China’s educational successes, industrial might, and technological prowess remind us of the ways” we used to be as a nation. Friedman and Mandelbaum focus on four challenges that we must address as a nation – globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation’s chronic deficits, and our pattern of excessive energy consumption. The book also highlights one common theme that undercuts the malaise that runs across our country’s attempts at problem solving – a disdain for government and a firm belief in the myth of absolute free markets. To me, this is one of the biggest hurdles we need to overcome.

One of my first jobs out of college was with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. I was hired to write permits for companies discharging effluent to groundwater and surface water. I had little educational training, and was not provided training on the job. I arrived at the industrial facilities with a checklist of To Dos, with little knowledge of what I was doing. I was matched with engineers and scientists with years of experience that dwarfed my understanding. And yet I was required to write a certain number of permits each week. When I asked policy questions of my management, I was told to keep writing permits. If I was one of the companies I regulated, I would be tempted to think that all government officials were losers. This is the attitude that grew among businesses in the 1980s and has gained steam over the past 30 years. Ronald Reagan made a career of denigrating government officials, and the Tea Party considers it hallowed ground.

But I didn’t jump on the pile of government bashing. Instead, I quit my job, went back to school, and sought to become a different kind of government official, one that fostered free market competition with sensible rules. There are many of that type of government official out there, and they are now in the majority. But no one wants to notice. Instead, we continue to hear uncompromising anti-regulatory dogma. I yearn for a more healthy balance. Just as jobs and the environment go hand-in-hand, so do regulations and the free market economy. In fact, without this balance, regulations will choke progress and the free market will result in corporate excesses requiring government bail-outs. Again.

That Used to Be Us recounts how Theodore Roosevelt’s experience “…taught him that for business to thrive it required consistent and transparent rules, as well as regulators authorized to prevent abuses and hold businesses accountable.” It mentions that “His [Roosevelt’s] concept of the vital role government had to play to regulate markets, as well as to protect public health and safety, not to mention to safeguard our nation’s wilderness, laid the basis for America’s Progressive era.”

Here are a few more tidbits to ponder from Friedman/Mandelbaum: “Markets are not just wild gardens that can be left untended. They need to be shaped by regulations that promote risk-taking but prevent recklessness on a scale that can harm everyone. The need for regulations arises from an unavoidable feature of any free-market economy, one that economists call ‘externalities.’ These are the costs of free-market activities that are not captured by prices, for which, therefore, nobody pays, and that can injure the society as a whole. To correct this market failure, government has to step in to make sure that something closer to the full costs of the activity do somehow get paid.”

These concepts are not new. In fact, they are basic economic principles. In his November 6 New York Times column, Paul Krugman wrote about the true costs of hydraulic fracking, saying “…special treatment for fracking makes a mockery of free-market principles. Pro-fracking politicians claim to be against subsidies, yet letting an industry impose costs without paying compensation is in effect a huge subsidy.”

Why is it that the government we rely on to correct market failures is so criticized for its attempts to tame the beast? And why is it that those whose products cause external costs on our society believe that voluntary solutions are the only solutions that exist, and that government should back off and let industry police itself, even when the evidence suggests over and over that this is not possible?

The balance between government regulation and the free market economy has gotten horribly out of whack in the U.S. The Product Stewardship Institute was founded on the principle of collaboration with industry. We spent countless hours explaining the concept of externalities, documenting actual costs to government and the lost jobs owing to pure waste of valuable materials. We jointly identified common goals, uncovered barriers to reaching those goals, and explored possible solutions. Data prove that product stewardship systems reduce external costs and turn wasted materials into jobs and economic value. Only a few U.S. industries are willing to accept this truth. Others fight.

The more we have succeeded in passing EPR laws, the more that companies have placed their bets on the corporate wheel of fortune. They have slowed legislation through lobbying, reducing their own corporate costs while imposing continued costs on the environment and government. There is no doubt that corporate change is hard to achieve, especially when those with the power are benefiting unfairly. If this sounds familiar, it is no wonder that Occupy Wall Street has struck a chord with Middle America. While those in tents plead to remedy a range of inequalities, those promoting product stewardship can rest assured that their micro-issue has resonated with the macro-issues facing our nation.

It is time for balance and time for change. That really can be us.

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EPR for Packaging in the U.S. – the Landscape

It is widely known that the route to producer responsibility in the U.S. has been markedly different from the route taken in Europe and, to a degree, Canada. In the U.S., issues were prioritized based largely on toxicity. When the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) held its first national product stewardship forum in 2000, we asked state and local solid waste management officials across the country what they considered their biggest waste management problems. By far, the number one issue was electronics, followed by mercury products and paint. For this reason, in the U.S., we focused on these products as the top issues.

Europe, however, started with Germany’s packaging law in 1990. Over the past 20 years, more than 30 European countries have adopted extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs for packaging. Four Canadian provinces have now enacted packaging EPR laws. And the U.S. is still building the groundwork for action.

Here is how the landscape is shaping up for EPR for packaging in the U.S.  Proponents of EPR include, not surprisingly, state and local government agencies that started the U.S. product stewardship movement. However, all governments are interested, not just those in progressive states. The cost of managing waste has become a big issue for government, and they are ready to act. Governments are interested in saving money, but are also concerned about the loss of control over the collection of recyclables from households. PSI has been convening its state and local government members to figure out the type of EPR system they want as a model in the U.S.  Other EPR supporters are, also not surprisingly, environmental groups. And that is where the current support for EPR for packaging and printed materials stands at the moment.

There are some exceptions among industry. Nestle Waters North America (NWNA) has stepped out as a major proponent of EPR, and PSI is working with them, among many others. NWNA wants to show that EPR can result in increased supply of recycled materials on par with the rates achieved by beverage deposit laws. This position is not to be confused with the position of others in the beverage industry that developed the EPR packaging bill in Vermont in 2010 that included EPR only if the state’s 40-year old container deposit law was repealed. That strategic misstep has confused many people into believing that EPR is synonymous with a repeal of the bottle bill, and has created great animosity among stakeholders. But it has gotten people talking.

“If success is measured by the achieved recycling levels, then member states with strong producer responsibility systems have successfully increased overall rates.” 2005 European Commission Study on Packaging Waste and Options to Strengthen Prevention and Re-use of Packaging

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies have, for the most part, been uninterested in engaging in a discussion about EPR for packaging in the U.S., even though their counterparts are operating under the exact same systems in Europe and Canada. Sierra Fletcher, our Director of Policy and Programs and I spent four meetings over nine months with representatives from P&G, Kraft, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, ConAgra, and other CPG companies in meetings held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These companies, in general, believe that we can increase recycling significantly solely by optimizing the current system. In my ten years of engaging brand owners in EPR, we know that this is a necessary step in the process because the existing system can always be made more efficient, and that reduces cost. But it is always only a stage in the process of moving toward an understanding that EPR, and perhaps other systems, are also needed. Only two CPG companies – Estee Lauder and SC Johnson – have engaged PSI in a real discussion on EPR. Estee Lauder is a big fan. SC Johnson does not believe it is the right solution.

The rest of the stakeholder groups are in learning mode, and this is who PSI is talking to.

End users of glass, plastic, paper, aluminum, and other metals – so called commodities – have started to warm to the idea of learning about EPR. The Association of Post-Consumer Plastics Recyclers invited me to speak at its annual meeting in June. I found an engaged and interested group of plastics recyclers that were desperate for ways to increase the recycling of plastics. They want more supply of high quality recycled plastics at the best possible price. They are looking at all solutions, and their staff and policy committee smartly have begun to learn about EPR and how it can help them. Have they embraced EPR whole-hog? No. But do they think EPR might be part of the solution for more business and more jobs. Absolutely.

Plastics recyclers are leading the commodity groups in understanding that quantity, quality, and price can possibly be achieved by EPR. But aluminum is not far behind. I just got back from a trip to Chicago where the Aluminum Association had its annual meeting. I spoke to aluminum industry executives about what EPR is and isn’t, and how EPR and the bottle bill can live together or apart but that the decision should be up to the brand owner as to how they will meet aggressive performance goals. Aluminum industry representatives asked all the right questions, and we have begun a healthy discussion.

Representatives of glass and paper commodities are still warming to the idea of even having an in-depth discussion about EPR. But PSI is talking to them as well. A key concern of the paper industry is why they should face the potential transactional costs of a shift to EPR when their material is already recycled at a high rate.

We are also having discussions with waste management companies, which view EPR as a potential threat to their business models. These companies have invested in recycling and waste disposal trucks and facilities, and in a business strategy that will need to be flexible to respond to the changes ahead with EPR.

Other groups are pushing the conversation as well. The newly formed PAC-NEXT, based in Canada but working with retailers, CPG companies, and related businesses that operate across North America, has invited PSI to engage with its corporate members with the goal of helping the packaging industry transition toward a world without packaging waste. PSI is co-chairing a PAC-NEXT project to develop best practices for post-consumer material recovery, including EPR, which will lead toward harmonization of programs in North America. And Future 500 out of San Francisco is selectively engaging stakeholders on EPR in the U.S.

Packaging and printed materials is a product area that is much different from others we have tackled in the U.S. – yet at the same time it shares with other products the fact that our traditional waste management system has relied on the patchwork of local and state governments to clean up after us. A solution will not be achieved overnight, but we are starting to build it. There are many stakeholders with multiple interests that need to be melded into a cohesive agreement that is sustainable. These stakeholders are not at the same place in their interest and willingness to develop a model EPR bill in the U.S. But these discussions are taking place, and coalitions are forming.

But the first thing that needs to happen is that people learn the facts, and that is where PSI is spending its time – educating all stakeholders about EPR so that they understand how EPR will result in less waste, more recycling, more jobs for the recycling industry, and lower costs for government. This is all about how good government and the right regulations CREATE jobs. It is time for this reality to be heard loud and clear in America.

Check out the article in Plastics News reporting on my presentation to the plastics recycling industry. Although there are a few factual errors in the article, it will give you a good sense of what I said, and about how EPR can increase material supply and quality, and lower costs.

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The Infamous Light Bulb Law: What the Tea Party, Environmentalists, Government, and Manufacturers Have in Common

While a light bulb may seem like a trivial item, it has incited momentous debate. To energy efficiency advocates, the light bulb symbolizes the opportunity to upgrade an Edison-era technology, save money, and reduce greenhouse gases and other environmental impacts. In the Tea Party’s eyes, the light bulb is a prime example of an overly pervasive government dictating what items we can install in our private homes. To me, many actors – Republicans and Democrats, environmental groups and anti-government cheerleaders – have turned the lights out on the public, muddling and oversimplifying a complex issue.

In 2007, President George W. Bush, signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires light bulb manufacturers to improve household bulb efficiency by 30 percent and phase-out 100- and 40-watt bulbs between 2012 to 2014. The law exempts “specialty bulbs” like those for chandeliers, and does not mandate using any particular type of energy-efficient bulb.

Not only was the federal bill signed into law by a staunch Republican, but it also had overwhelming bipartisan support. The House passed the bill 314-100 following its 86-8 passage in the Senate. Lighting manufacturers and retailers also heavily favored passage of the bill. “We support the notion that efficiency is a desirable thing, and this type of standard has been a part of our body politic for a long time,” said Randall Moorhead, vice president of government affairs at Philips, earlier this year.

The Energy Independence and Security Act was also touted as a way to lower our foreign oil dependency. Although many of us have warmed to the glow of incandescent bulbs, the U.S. EPA notes that 90 percent of an incandescent bulb’s required energy is wasted as heat, meaning increased use of scarce and highly polluting natural resources such as oil and coal. The Natural Resources Defense Council also predicted annual savings of $13 billion in energy costs and a yearly reduction of 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Before the bill was introduced, technology gurus were at work developing energy-efficient alternatives. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one such alternative – compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) – use 75 percent less energy and last 10 times longer than traditional incandescents. The U.S. Department of Energy asserts that, over its lifetime, a 25-watt CFL actually costs a consumer $105 less than a 100-watt incandescent, factoring in the cost of the bulb and energy usage.

Manufacturers began rolling out CFLs in bundles, large retailers marketed energy-efficient bulbs to the masses with huge discounts, and consumers switched to CFLs and light emitting diodes (LEDs). Unfortunately, supporters of this well-intended light bulb law did not finish their homework. Many consumers are dissatisfied with the performance of the alternative bulbs. And worse, no one mentioned that CFLs contain small amounts of mercury and, therefore, need to be recycled once they burn out. In addition, no one explained that CFLs can break, although not nearly as easily as their well-known cousins, the linear fluorescent lamp known worldwide by anyone who works in an office or does home improvement projects. The fact that breakup cleanup is easy and not particularly hazardous (but needs to be done right) further botched communication with the public.

Does the Tea Party have something to howl about? Yes it does. But they are howling at the wrong moon, missing a golden opportunity to help the public by meaningfully addressing the real issues. To this day, lighting manufacturers are fighting legislation that would require them to create recycling programs for their product. They want taxpayers, not consumers, to cover the cost.

What does this all mean? The adoption of the Energy Independence and Security Act has certainly created chaos. Proper planning for the law’s implementation was bungled by government, manufacturers, retailers, and environmental groups. Was it well intended? Absolutely. Should we roll back the clock? No. The potential for energy savings, pollution reduction, and cost savings for consumers in the long-run are too great to sacrifice for Tea Party enthusiasts who want to shrink government into nonexistence.

What do we do now? One solution is to make sure that manufacturers of these mercury products take responsibility for recycling burned out bulbs. Also, retailers promoting the sale of the bulbs must be part of the solution, collecting bulbs voluntarily and/or alerting consumers that the bulbs must be recycled and directing consumers to convenient drop-off locations. We must also learn from this mistake on a larger scale. Manufacturers of products should account for the product’s full lifecycle impact and factor the ultimate fate of a product’s materials into a plan for recycling or proper disposal.

Government officials, environmental groups, and PSI have all succeeded in Maine, Washington, and Vermont in mandating that fluorescent lamp manufacturers pay for recycling spent mercury lamps. We hoped that this industry would recognize the need for leadership without our persuasion. But all involved parties must now roll up their sleeves and find joint solutions to past mistakes. One thing we don’t need, however, is the drone of anti-government accusations taking the spotlight off more significant issues.

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Who Pays for Product Stewardship?

Below is a blog post by Scott Cassel, Executive Director of the Product Stewardship Institute, in preparation for the PSI Networking Webinar, “Who Pays for EPR? Producers, Consumer Fees, Taxes, and Political Perceptions,” on Wednesday, May 18th (1:00-2:30 p.m. EST). Please join us for the dialogue.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s what my environmental science professor told me many years ago. He was referring to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which, according to Wikipedia, “…means that the universe as a whole is ultimately a closed system—there is no magic source of matter, energy, light, or indeed lunch—that does not draw resources from something else, and will not eventually be exhausted.”

Ever since being introduced to this phrase, I have found myself repeating it when I want to make a point about not getting something for nothing. Advertisements that promote free vacations and free stuff always come with a hitch…like grabbing your email address for endless promotions, or fine print on forms that sign you up for costs when an initial free promotion runs out.  You know the deal.

So why do some people want a free lunch when it comes to the environment?

These people don’t want their taxes to go up, and they don’t want to pay more for a product at the store, yet they want a clean environment. Why is that?

Here is my understanding. Most people really do want a clean environment. And they want to leave clean air, clean water, healthy land, and lots of other stuff to their kids and grand kids. Unfortunately, no one told them about the true costs for these benefits and, even if they knew those costs, they would need to be convinced that the money they paid was used efficiently and effectively. But here’s the kicker – none of us really knows the true costs of the products we are consuming at a record pace. That beautiful silver cup in your cupboard came from mined materials that have their own impacts on worker safety and health and the environment. That hand-crafted wooden crib for the new baby came from lumber that was certified by some organization whose stamp of approval states that the trees from which it came were harvested with great care. And the jeans you just bought are made from cotton grown somewhere under conditions that required a lot of resources, then dyed with who knows what type of chemicals that were treated in some way that was hopefully protective of the environment and worker safety, and did not use child labor.

Wow! Is it no wonder that we bury our heads in the sand and move on with our lives… making a living, fixing dinner, creating a home, and staying out of debt. And when it comes to paying for the stuff we use, we all want it for the cheapest price.

Remember the credit card bubble, the real estate bubble, and the housing bubble? We are now in the environmental bubble. The real truth is that most of us really don’t have a clue about the environmental and social impacts caused by the products we buy. But we are about to find out, and then we will have burst yet another unsustainable bubble.

Let me pose a hypothetical question. What if you knew that Product A had a negative impact on the water that you and I dearly value, while Product B did not? And what if Product B cost only a few cents more than Product A? Like most people, you would probably choose Product B.

Now what if Product B was more than a little bit more expensive than Product A? Would you choose it anyway? Fewer people would. They will look harder at the trade-off, and wonder whether the negative impact from Product A was really that much worse than Product B. And how would they really know? Who really knows how either Product A or Product B was made? Even if we had some idea, we are all not scientists who can stop in our tracks and calculate the impacts of every purchasing decision we make. And what if Product A performed a lot better than Product B, or you didn’t want to risk the switch and find out? What would you do then?

It’s no wonder that we don’t want to wrap our brains around the full cost of producing the goods we consume. We’d go nuts!

But we have to start somewhere.

Many companies have begun expensive and time-consuming lifecycle assessments to better understand the environmental impacts of their products all along their lifecycle, from mining, to manufacture, to use, and finally disposal. These tools have advanced our understanding of product impacts. But progress has been slow, and these assessments are often best when comparing one variable against another. Taking this information to the public so they can make purchasing decisions is still years away.

What can we do right now?

Pass product stewardship laws of course!

Product stewardship systems hold manufacturers responsible for reducing the impacts of their products. These systems provide a financial incentive for companies to design products so that they use fewer and less toxic materials and choose materials that have a market value and can be processed and re-sold after use. Product stewardship acknowledges that there are no free lunches. There is a cost to the environment when we make and use products, and there is a cost to minimize those impacts.

If we want clean water and air, green jobs, and lower costs to government, the consumer will pay more than what they pay now for many products. While toner cartridges and lead acid car batteries have a value at “end-of-life” that exceeds the cost of collection and processing, carpet, paint, compact fluorescent lamps, most electronics, and many other products don’t. The product stewardship movement has begun to reverse these external costs on the environment.

We all know that the consumer will pay at the end of the day…because there is no such thing as a free lunch…and manufacturers cannot be expected to eat the extra cost. But what if the manufacturer of Product A and the manufacturer of Product B were both required to set up systems to ensure that their products were collected and properly managed when consumers no longer wanted them? And what if these two companies truly included all the lifecycle costs of making and using their products? Only then will you have the real choice between products, since the societal cost of making that product will be included in the price you pay. But how much will you be willing to pay, and for what level of environmental and social benefit? How will you know that the impacts of making that product were truly incorporated in what you paid? And what value do you place on those benefits as compared to your neighbor? This is the bulls-eye for the debate on product stewardship.

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Harnessing Market Forces through Product Stewardship: A Step toward Global Competitiveness

Last week, in the President’s State of the Union address, he challenged the nation to tap into our entrepreneurial spirit so we can better compete against China, India, and other countries that have invested heavily in their own country’s future. He spoke of a role of government that is nuanced – one that can work with the market, where government can guide development through policies that make us more competitive.

Product stewardship seeks limited governance that sets broad parameters for market competition. It seeks a greater role for the private sector, shifting the management and financial burdens from often inefficient government practices to those driven by market forces. Managing products that we call “waste” is nothing but inefficiencies in the market. It is a market failure. And that failure has resulted in billions of dollars of taxpayer costs to subsidize businesses whose products are manufactured and sold without consideration for their social and environmental costs.

How is it possible that telephone directories are still produced and distributed across the United States at the current rate? No one knows for sure how many people still use them, although most people I talk to don’t, except perhaps my over-80 parents and a few die-hards. Over 660,000 tons of directories get plunked onto our doorsteps, pathways, driveways, and vestibules each year. Less than a quarter are recycled. All must be collected and recycled or disposed of by government and paid for by government, with complaints being dealt with by government. That is the same Government that Tea Party leaders want to get out of business and get out of the business of business. It is time to heed their call.

Phone books keep getting delivered at their current rate of excess because the external costs of managing the directories after they are kerplunked is paid for by taxpayers, all $64 million of it. Whether we use one or not, we are all subsidizing telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon, and independent directory publishers like Dex and Yellow Book. Not only are we paying financially for their inefficient ways, but these companies are not covering the true cost of their impacts on our environment. They do not pay for the greenhouse gas impacts that the production of directories causes, or the stress on our water or air as the result of factories producing books no one wants, or emissions from trucks that transport them, deliver them, and pick them up, or pollution from the facilities that recycle them or dispose of them.

I picked on phone books here because they are visible and a clear waste if no one wants them. But this argument can be made on all products produced worldwide. Some companies have taken steps to reduce the lifecycle impacts of their products, and these leaders should be applauded. Others have taken a lead on turning materials from used products into usable commodities.

The United States can be a global leader in competitiveness. We are still the world’s market powerhouse. Product stewardship can maintain this strength through the efficient use of our nation’s resources, whether they are mined from the earth or mined from our households and businesses after use. Product stewardship policies seek good governance, not NO governance. Government should not “get out of the way” and let business run rampant. Haven’t we seen that movie before with the crises from banking, housing, and credit card deregulation? The government’s role in good product stewardship programs is limited to setting parameters for industry, guiding it, enforcing against those who cheat and want a free ride, and encouraging companies that are the true leaders of innovation to succeed.

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