I am going to add my three cents to this discussion. My discussion takes into consideration other recent messages to this list and, in some ways, perhaps even restates some of their points differently in terms I prefer.
1. I some ways, I feel somewhat dissatisfied with the term "producer responsibility." Producers do have a responsibility, both legally and morally, not to harm the larger community they are part of in pursuit of their commercial interests. Some interpret this to mean that the producers should have total crade to grave responsibility. I disagree in the sense that this ignores the issue of why products are made to begin with. In general, it is because we, the consumer, want them.
(I know some on this list believe that companies make products and somehow hoodwink and bamboozle people into thinking they need them when they really don't. Perhaps there is a segment of our society that is so weak-minded that this may be true but I prefer to believe that most of us are fairly mentally competent and make purchasing decisions for reasons other than what we told through advertising. But I digress here...)
So, consumers also have an obligation (mostly moral) to be responsible consumers. So, in a fundamental way, when we talk about product end-of-life management I believe the issue will only be decided in the way we all want it to be if most consumers believe in the concept of "consumer responsibility."
2. Consumers, in the end, pay for everything either through taxes or their consumer purchasers. John Waddell therefore asks "What is the difference between subsizing disposal/recycling/reuse through our tax dollars OR paying for disposal/recycling/reuse up front when we purchase the product?" This is like asking what is the difference between a man and woman cohabitating inside or outside a state of matrimony since, from an external perspective, the two states appear alike (please - no e-mails about this to me, it's just an analogy). There is, in my view, a great deal of difference. By making product end-of-life (PEOLM) a taxpayer responsibility, you get the situation you have now. Some communities will step up to the plate and many won't. You will get endless arguments over whether you want to pay for proper PEOLM or schools and police. The debate will be distorted by the intrusion of special interests and the money that trails in their wake. And finally, if you want to have an a real influence on the political debate over how taxpapyer money should or shouldn't be spent on PEOLM you will need to become a policy wonk on this issue which I assure you most people will not want to do.
3. The private sector (of which I am a member) argues that privatization of public services is a wise choice because the private sector is motivated to deliver services efficiently because of the discipline imposed through open market competition. Let's accept this statement as true if, in fact, you really have an open, competitive market environment. Then it strikes me as strange that the private sector is fighting so hard against POEM as a business requirement. Most describe PEOLM as internalizing an external cost. I prefer to view it as "privatizing" a service that is primarily delivered now through the use of tax dollars. The manufacturers argue that it will raise the cost of the final product and hurt the consumer. Maybe. Certainly, if producers are required to take on PEOLM, they will probably make stupid mistakes in the beginning as they try to figure out what works and what doesn't. But if PEOLM is "privatized", it too will now be subject to the full force of the marketplace that seeks to relentlessly grind down the prices that producers in fact can charge. Maybe some producers will pass on the full cost of PEOLM to the consumer, but maybe some other companies won't in the hope of gaining market share. And, as time goes on, the producers will be motivated to find the most efficient way to fulfill PEOLM requirements as they do for a myriad as they are able to do for a host of other business environment obligations relating to labor, product safety, labeling, public reporting practices (if they are a public company), etc. Further advantages to the consumer is that, if PEOLM requirements are Federal, then you have uniform national standards for a "level" playing field, the consumer doesn't have to know a thing about PEOLM just as most of us don't know about any of other things producers have to do just as long as they conform to requirements that, we as an electorate, approved through our legislative process and finally, by placing PEOLM into the marketplace, the consumer has the ability to exercise "consumer responsibility" by choosing products made by companies that seek a competitive advantage by doing something extra in the hope of winning over that segement of the marketplace that cares about these issues.
4. There is also a third way between just continuing to pay for PEOLM through tax dollars and making businesses take on PEOLM through regulation and that way is through purchasing cooperatives. Why can't some of national environmental organizations get together and put out a solicitation saying "we want to buy X (let's say computers) that includes environmentally responsible PEOLM. Give us your best offer, a time limit on how long this offer is valid, how many years we have to commit to you and how many people we have to sign up to get the deal you offer. We will then select the best deal and do the work of signing up the necessary number of people that are needed for the deal to happen within the specified time period." This is a perfect test to see if everyone is willing to put their money where their mouths are: for producers who say that the market and not government should determine how PEOLM should be handled and for the consumers who say they want to be responsible and are willing to pay for PEOLM as part of this responsibility. If the right deal comes along I'd sign up in a heartbeat.
Roger M. Guttentag