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[greenyes] Extended Producer Responsibility in Cascadia (US & Canada)


"Politically, product stewardship is fascinating because it blends
ideologies. As Spiegelman and Sheehan write, 'From a fiscal conservative
perspective, EPR [extended producer responsibility] makes sense because it
gets waste management off the tax base and it is based on the notion that
the private sector is more efficient and effective than government managed
programs. Those of a more liberal bent support EPR because they believe that
producers should have responsibility for pollution prevention.' "

Cascadia Scorecard
December 01, 2004

Who Takes Out the Trash?

By Alan Durning, Executive Director, Northwest Environment Watch

One important but little discussed difference between the Canadian and
American parts of Cascadia is their different philosophies about trash. This
difference has emerged in the last decade. And, sad to say, the Canadians
have left the Americans in the dustbin, so to speak. British Columbia has
adopted a far less regulatory, government-centered approach, even while they
've made dramatic gains in waste reduction and recycling.

I'm talking here about "product stewardship" or "extended producer
responsibility." (We also wrote about it in This Place on Earth 2001.) It
springs from posing an unfamiliar question: Who's responsible for products
you buy when you're done with them? In other words, who takes out the trash?
The customary answer to that question is, "You are." But in practice, the
answer has become, "local government."

Trash hauling has been a local-government responsibility since a century
ago, when public hygiene depended on getting rubbish (and the rats and
insects it fostered) out of town. The composition of solid waste has changed
radically in the past century, while responsibility for garbage has not. A
century ago, urban wastes consisted mostly of ashes and biodegradable scraps
such as food waste. Now, the solid wastes that Cascadian communities handle
are overwhelmingly discarded consumer products and their packaging.

Product stewardship is a shift in thinking. It suggests that the makers of
those products and their packaging should shoulder a large portion of the
responsibility for those goods even after they're sold. The reason is that
the makers of those products have the largest opportunities to reduce
lifecycle environmental and health impacts, because the design phase of the
product chain is the most critical. In practice, that means that industries
keep reuse and recycling in mind when planning their products and they band
together to create reuse and recycling systems to take care of their wares.

The history of product stewardship is fascinating, counterintuitive, and
sometimes heartbreaking. The recycling boom of the late 1980s hit all of
Cascadia about the same: municipalities set up curbside recycling programs
at the expense of taxpayers or utility ratepayers. By the early 1990s,
British Columbia, like Washington and Oregon, had imposed small fees on
certain hard-to-dispose consumer goods such as car tires and car batteries.
The fees helped to pay for recycling or proper disposal.

But in 1993, British Columbia parted ways with the Northwest states. Rather
than taking on responsibility for recycling an ever-longer list of consumer
and business wastes (as some communities were doing in the Northwest
states), it embraced product stewardship. It began convening entire
industries and assigning them the task of working out comprehensive systems
for managing products throughout their lifecycles. Government participated
in the negotiations as an advocate of the public interest. And it continues
to monitor the resulting industry organizations and alliances and the
systems they create for collecting used goods. Most important, government
holds industry accountable for meeting province-wide goals and timetables.
But government doesn't collect the money or pay for the services. That's
between the manufacturers of the goods and their consumers.

After a decade on this path, British Columbia has the most comprehensive
list of products subject to such stewardship systems of any state or
province in North America. It includes soft-drink containers, used oil, oil
containers and filters, paints, solvents and flammable liquids, gasoline,
domestic pesticides, pharmaceuticals, beer containers, and rechargeable
batteries. "E-wastes" - outdated electronic equipment - is scheduled to join
this list soon. (And, of course, municipalities and regional districts still
provide curbside recycling and trash hauling for other goods. The province
itself continues to manage the used tires and car batteries.)

South of the 49th parallel, meanwhile, reuse and recycling efforts have
progressed only slowly since the early 1990s. Some municipalities have made
progress with their curbside programs. But the onus-and the bill-has fallen
to taxpayers and ratepayers. They've been left covering the cost of handling
used-up products and their packages. Producers have got off scot-free.
Advocates, meanwhile, have been stymmied again and again in their attempts
to hold producers responsible for the goods and packaging they send forth
into the world. The main obstacle: American industry has bigger political
muscles than Canadian industry. So American industry has been able to push
waste reduction and recycling off on others.

Look at the results: waste reduction and recycling in the (conservative, by
reputation) states is done by the public sector. Waste reduction and
recycling in the (liberal, by reputation) province is done by the private
sector-or a growing share of it is. And ultimately, this means that British
Columbia is getting the prices of goods to more accurately reflect their
true, lifecycle costs. The users of specific products pay for (more of) the
products' costs, rather than shifting the burden to all taxpayers or
ratepayers.

The shift to product stewardship--and movements to advance it in the
Northwest states and elsewhere in the United States--is the topic of an
excellent paper (http://www.productpolicy.org/resources/index.html) by the
new Product Policy Project. The paper is written by the project's director
Bill Sheehan and its board president Helen Spiegelman. Helen lives in
Vancouver, BC, and was long associated with the Recycling Council of British
Columbia. RCBC has stood out as a continental leader on product stewardship.

Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation has more recently taken up the
torch of product stewardship, promoting producer responsibility in the key
e-waste sector and others. And the Northwest Product Stewardship Council,
which represents government bodies, has also entered the field.

Politically, product stewardship is fascinating because it blends
ideologies. As Spiegelman and Sheehan write, "From a fiscal conservative
perspective, EPR [extended producer responsibility] makes sense because it
gets waste management off the tax base and it is based on the notion that
the private sector is more efficient and effective than government managed
programs. Those of a more liberal bent support EPR because they believe that
producers should have responsibility for pollution prevention."

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