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Will extended producer responsibility move everything toward the zero waste paradigm?

First published in October 2011 newsletter of the Northern California Recycling Association

ExtendedProducer Responsibility (EPR) is the extension of the responsibility ofproducers for the environmental impacts of their products and packaging for theentire product life cycle – especially for the take-back, recycling andcomposting of these products, as well as the potential disposal of toxicsubstances. EPR is based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The simple idea isto get true-costs into the product, so that the market responds authenticallyand recovery of the resource becomes more probable.

As it is, we have inappropriate prices – artificially low,in a so-called free market system. ‘Cheap’ gets promoted, profits areprivatized and externalities get hoisted onto the public’s budgets or theecological commons. Let’s propose transferring responsibility for productand packaging disposal, recycling or composting costs from local towns to resinmakers, brand owners and first importers.

 

Bill McDonough,co-author of Cradle-to-Cradle And “Being Less Bad Is Not Being Good”, puts it this way: “Thereare two fundamental frameworks for metabolism: biological and technicalnutrients. So we ask a company, ‘Are your materials safe and healthy for humanand ecological systems?  Do you have reverse logistics – do we know wherethis stuff comes from, where it goes, and how to get it back and it onto closed,zero-waste cycles?”

 

If we can’t reuse it, recycle it or compost it, industry shouldn’t be makingit. To even begin to approach zero waste — whether that’s 90% diversion ormore — we need better industrial design for this 21st Century.

 

Most EPR legislation has focused on two main groups:”toxics/dangerous” – batteries, electronics, paints, sharps, etc.,and some beverage packaging. There are 10 deposit states plus the nation stateof Canada with deposit on various types of beverage packaging – but no way ALLbeverages! The ‘bottle bill’ states recycle the big five: #1 and #2 rigidplastics, glass, metals, paper/fiber at 80% plus recovery rates; the remaining40 states are below 30%. Steve Young, of Allan Company, has suggested that ifwe can’t agree to a national bottle bill, at least get Texas and Floridainvolved, because that would fill in some major national gaps in the system.

 

As for the ‘stuff’ that is dangerous or toxic, 12 states have some form ofEPR legislation within these categories. Let’s add the Precautionary Principleto these frameworks, which states that if the potential consequences of anaction are severe or irreversible, in the absence of full scientific certainty,the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action, orcreating the product – e.g. think of pesticides or certain pharmaceuticals.

 

As You Sow, the SF based non-profit, recently published “Waste & Opportunity: U.S. Beverage Container RecyclingScorecard and Report”.  Surveys were sent to 45 companies; ten respondedand those companies were graded on their efforts. The Report found severalbrands, including Coca-Cola and Nestlé Waters, would support the advancement ofEPR legislation. This represents a new stance from leading companies, one thatcould prove significant if change is to occur.

 

In Canada and Europe, where EPR laws are already in place, beverage containersare recovered at a much higher rate than the estimated 29% by container weightachieved in the United States. The report indicates a direct link betweencontainer recovery rates and the ability of manufacturers to incorporaterecycled content, rPET (#1), into new bottles. “We note that several companiessaid they couldn’t make solid commitments to close the loop faster because theywere having trouble getting adequate supplies of post-consumer PET,” statedConrad MacKerron, of As You Sow’s Corporate Social Responsibility Program.

 

MacKerron also concluded that the option for increasing recovery rates is moreconsumer deposit laws; yet beverage companies are opposed to this solution,they tend to feel ‘picked-on’: that is, you have deposit on your Coke bottle,but not your Tide container, why is that?  Also the various states have awide range of logistics for deposit return, and create more recovery costs thanthey should, i.e. the deposit is too high: that burden is shifted to onlyspecific beverage containers, and not shared by other packaging and containers.

 

Unfortunately in the EU, incineration is considered part of the zero wastesolution; most likely because of such limited landfill space. Yet so-calledwaste-to-energy facilities are not clean energy solutions: as they keep the’polluting’ stuff coming in as feedstock. And BTU value, even if it goes up inthe future, keeps the pedal on ‘more energy’ rather keeping embodied energy ina resource recovery.

 

If one was to do a waste characterization, and here purely as anexample: San Francisco has an announced 77% diversion rate, of theremaining 23%, perhaps another 5% to 8% are recyclables: either’tough-to-recycle-or-compost’, or ‘optical sorting recyclable’: that leavesabout 15 to 18% of the ‘stuff’ that is just not designed for recovery at all.

 

EPR on ALL of the stuff is part of an answer, at least to create the economicincentive to design for recovery.