A New Approach to Recycling

Bill SheehanBill Sheehan cofounded the Product Policy Institute (PPI) with Helen Spiegelman in 2003, and serves as its executive director. In his work at PPI, he tackles waste from every angle—from championing waste-reduction methods to promoting cleaner manufacturing processes and the use of less-toxic materials. Sheehan has been a major supporter of bringing extended producer responsibility (EPR) to the U.S., and his work has led to the formation of Product Stewardship Councils in California, New York, Texas, Vermont and other states. Here, he talks to E about the promise for widespread adoption of EPR in the U.S.

E Magazine: Is EPR reaching a tipping point in the U.S.?

Bill Sheehan: Yes. EPR is in a high legislative phase. The question now is what kind of EPR recycling we will have. The danger is that powerful corporations—in concert with the garbage industry and public sector waste departments—will water down EPR so that it does little to move the needle towards sustainability. If all EPR does is throw industry funding at programs that collect masses of mixed material that are sold on low-grade global commodities markets, we won’t get meaningful change.

E: What kinds of EPR schemes are being advocated for packaging?

B.S.: Two camps are squaring off. One approach is the mixed-basket-of-goods approach proposed by the beverage industry in Vermont as an alternative to beverage container deposits. This employs industry financing for a “comprehensive” material-based program for all packaging and printed paper. In practice, it relies on industry financing of government-delivered curbside programs. In Canada, this approach has been implemented in Ontario and Manitoba and has delivered poor results.

The second approach, pioneered in western Canada, is phased and targeted EPR. Government targets specific product categories—such as soft drinks, fast food, detergents and cleaners, and lets producers engage with consumers to innovate new programs. That’s how it has worked with the successful EPR programs for household hazardous products that are underway.

E: Should local and state governments pay part of the cost of EPR programs, or should corporations bear the burden alone?

B.S.: The central principle of EPR is that those who design, market and use products and packaging—producers and consumers—should pay for all of the environmental management costs. Experience shows that good EPR programs do not require any further subsidies from state or local governments. In fact, they work better when government sets the bar and then lets industry design and operate the most effective programs. One of the opportunities in EPR is that it offers brand owners an opportunity to build a relationship of trust with the consumer.

E: How do you view the beverage industry’s proposal for EPR for packaging in the Vermont legislation?

B.S.: Coca-Cola and Nestlé have made a fundamental concession: They admit that they have a moral responsibility to provide stewardship of their empty containers. But repealing effective, industry-managed container deposit programs makes no sense from a sustainability perspective.

Deposits get more than double the recovery rates of mixed curbside collection, they yield clean material that is used to make new products, they work for beverages consumed away from home and they engage consumers rather than taxpayers or garbage ratepayers. Industry-managed bottle deposits are the grandmother of North American EPR programs—they should be improved and expanded, not abandoned.

E: Is the Maine law a model for the rest of the U.S.?

B.S.: Maine’s first-in-the-nation framework law establishes the principles of EPR in policy, and also a process for identifying priority products in the waste stream for new product stewardship programs. Maine has more EPR laws than any other state, a strong state environmental agency and, not insignificantly, a campaign finance reform law.

Maine also has a collegial culture that allowed the bill’s author to get support from the business community through the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. States with less experience and capacity than Maine may need to first pass several product-specific EPR bills. Those can ultimately be rolled into a framework regulation as British Columbia did in 2004.

E: Why is Congress so unfriendly toward EPR?

B.S.: I think it’s more a matter of neglect. Recycling has never been a major focus of our federal government. In Europe and Canada, they’ve moved beyond debating whether EPR is the right policy and are asking how to make it work. Ultimately, harmonized federal or national EPR policies make sense. But brand owners are more powerful in Congress than in the state legislatures.

E: How does the Product Policy Institute see its role?

B.S.: PPI was the first environmental organization in the U.S. to raise the fundamental question of whether local communities should be bearing the burden of cleaning up after the throwaway economy. We told the story of the history of waste: how the provision of convenient municipal garbage collection, at no cost to those who design and market consumer goods, encouraged the proliferation of toxic and throw-away products and packaging.

We challenged—and still challenge—end-of-pipe services by local governments and waste haulers that don’t solve the waste problem, but perpetuate it. We think it’s time for the public to demand “cradle-to-cradle” product stewardship from the companies they do business with, so that consumers can return products and packaging rather than resorting to garbage trucks, landfills and incinerators.

CONTACT: Product Policy Institute.