Why are cities picking up the tab for recycling?

lego garbage truck
Promo image Let's start indoctrinating them when they are young.

Sarah Laskow writes an important article on recycling and producer responsibility, a subject dear to TreeHugger's heart.

For years we at TreeHugger have complained about recycling as simply being a way that big corporations shift producer responsibility onto the backs of taxpayers. Recycling makes you feel good about buying disposable packaging and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country so somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky. But only a little more than a quarter of that waste makes it that far, because the economics aren't there and many towns find it cheaper to just dump it in a hole in the ground.

TreeHugger Maggie even made a movie about this:

Rethinking Recycling from Margaret Badore on Vimeo.

Now Sarah Laskow picks up the banner with her post at Next City, asking Who Will Pay America’s $1.5 Billion Recycling Bill? with the subhead that we have been asking for years, Why Are Cities Picking Up the Tab on Corporate America’s Waste?

Laskow notes that disposable packaging makes up a big chunk of municipal solid waste. Fifty years ago this barely existed; people paid a deposit on bottles and took them back, where they were refilled. People ate in restaurants, not cars, and used china plates that were washed and reused. However manufacturers managed to convince us all that it is our responsibility to pick this stuff up and pay for its disposal or recycling. There is talk of change:

A small group of environmental advocates, though, has been pushing hard for a different model, one already popular in Europe. This model of “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, would shift the costs of recycling from municipal governments onto producers — the companies that make the products we buy.

Lloyd Alter with info from Heather Rogers/CC BY 2.0

Industry clearly isn't interested in EPR and doesn't want to talk about it but it is really the only way to do it. We all drink BPA laden canned beer now because the big brewers wanted to centralize production and they couldn't do that shipping heavy empty glass bottles around the country. The whole system of distribution works now on it all being one way, with the consumer responsible for the garbage. Laskow quotes Samantha McBride on how they changed the language and the thinking:

In the ’80s, some container and paper companies began supporting curbside recycling “to keep the costs of negative externalities squarely on the public.” Industry representatives were often quite explicit about this position. In a 1993 article about recycling, for instance, a representative of the American Plastics Council told the New York Times, “If I buy a product, I’m the polluter … I should be responsible for the disposal of the package.”

In the section The Lifecycle of Stuff, Laskow talks to Matt Prindiville, of Upstream, a Maine non-profit dealing with product stewardship. He notes that unless companies have a responsibility for waste then they do little to mitigate it.

The goal of EPR isn’t to stick companies with the bill for waste disposal out of anti-corporate spite; it’s to shift the work of dealing with disposable products from governments, who can’t do much to change them for the better, to companies, which can. “Stuff that has no value at the end of its life or that’s toxic — those are design problems,” says Upstream’s Prindiville. “You can’t fix those problems by having local governments say, ‘Hey, how do we deal with these things?’ You have to go to the source and get them to be responsible in designing products with sustainable materials.”

Interesting things happen when companies are forced by government or public pressure into taking producer responsibility. You can get totally useless greenwashing like the coffee pod recycling programs of Nespresso and Illy, or as TreeHugger Ruben described the recycling of Tetra Paks:

What does "re" mean? It means again. Can a Tetra Pak be made into another Tetra Pak? No. Tetra Paks are seven incomprehensibly thin layers of paper, plastic and aluminum. The poor suckers who try to recycle them use giant blenders to mush the paper pulp off the plastic and metal, then they need to separate the plastic from the metal. What idiot thought this would be a better idea than washing a bottle and refilling it?

Or you can get real progress, where companies like Dell redesigned their computers so that they were designed for disassembly, because once they started taking them back it was too expensive to take them apart. BMW is doing it with their cars. You get the return of craft brewing, growing at a furious pace. In Sarah's concluding paragraph she notes:

No matter what the outcome of these efforts, though, the same people will be paying for recycling: all of us. Right now, recycling is bundled into the cost of living in a particular place — we pay for recycling when we pay municipal taxes. With EPR, recycling becomes a part of the price of consumer goods — you pay to dispose of a product when you buy it.

I am not sure that this is entirely true. When there is true producer responsibility, companies act in their own best interest like Dell and BMW did, to design things so that it is easier and cheaper to deal with the waste. When Herman Miller took on producer responsibility for their Aeron chairs, they redesigned it so that they could take it apart in minutes and reuse many of the components. Because the companies selling beer in Canada take the bottles back and refill them, they design them to be a bit heavier and stronger to survive an average of 37 cycles of sale, return, wash, refill, sale. They save a fortune.

But outside of that very minor caveat, Sarah Laskow terrific and important article, a must-read on the subject of why recycling is really so much more that what it appears to be on the surface. Read it all at Next City.

Tags: Recycling | Urban Life


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