Fairness in Waste

Single-stream recycling may be convenient, but it’s not going to solve our waste problem.
This year, Earth Day (April 22) is focused on “A Billion Acts of Green,” the personal commitments that, taken together, add up to major reductions in energy, waste and pollution. One of the top such pledged commitments is to recycle. Pretty easy, as eco-commitments go. After all, thanks to the miracle of single-stream recycling, we can dump all of our recyclables into one big blue bin. Commitment met—at least on our part.

But there’s still a problem at the receiving end. This type of recycling does not produce nearly the amount of reusable material as separated systems. So while single-stream recycling can boast recovery rates of 60% for, say, plastic bottles, 25% of that is contaminated and, therefore, unusable, according to Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute. When, instead, a bottle bill is instituted, the companies that make the bottles have to pay for their collection and return—and the consumers are rewarded for returning them, to boot. That system produces much more reusable material and puts the responsibility and cost for dealing with the waste on the party responsible for creating it in the first place. This system is known in sustainability circles as “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, and this issue’s cover story looks at the growing movement to introduce and expand the concept across the U.S., moving beyond bottle bills to include electronics, batteries, hazardous materials, mattresses, packaging and other items. The waste from products and packaging represents three quarters of the stuff in landfills. This waste pollutes our air, ground and water both in manufacture and disposal, and it costs taxpayers a lot of money to collect and properly store.

Supporters of EPR say this system is unfair—that manufacturers should have to consider a product’s life cycle before turning out the many one-time-use, overpackaged or deliberately disposable items that then become someone else’s waste problem. Once manufacturers have to pay for their waste, they also have an incentive to minimize it through reduced packaging, less toxic materials and recycled content. The ultimate goal is zero waste, but anything even approaching that goal would represent a major environmental leap forward. In Europe and parts of Asia, EPR is already the norm and has meant significant reductions in packaging, reuse of materials and sophisticated collection of electronic waste. Unfortunately, companies in the U.S. are trying to weaken EPR efforts here before they even get off the ground by using the new measures to undo bottle bills—the one existing, successful EPR measure the country can claim.