Recycling: Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?

Most of us believe that recycling is our civic and environmental duty. And certainly, as the system is designed now, it is. But if you dig deeper into recycling, you very quickly come upon this controversial concept: “Extended Producer Responsibility”.

Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, is the concept that manufacturers of disposable materials should be responsible for the waste they generate. Should Coca-Cola be responsible for the recycling of the billions of plastic, glass and aluminum containers it creates? Should Proctor & Gamble be responsible for the end-of-life of the billions of disposable cardboard and plastic containers it produces? Should Walmart and Lowe’s be responsible for the cardboard waste they produce? What about Altria for the cigarette butts that litter the world?

Manufacturers and big retailers are doing what ever they can to avoid direct responsibility for their packaging. In fact, they are so averse to the idea that they essentially designed and finance the current recycling system in this country.

As Samantha McBride documents in her fascinating book Recycling Reconsidered, packaging manufacturers essentially bankrolled the nascent recycling concept in the early 1970s as a way to deflect legislation (especially bottle deposit laws) that would force them to take responsibility for the packages they made.

Today, companies like Walmart, Coca-Cola, Colgate Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Keurig, PepsiCo, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and Goldman Sachs are sponsoring the “Closed Loop Fund”, a $100 million fund for expanding and improving recycling. The money is targeted at municipalities and is designed specifically to keep the responsibility for waste packaging in the hands of the public. Sadly, the program is a loan program—not a grant program—so it won’t even help grassroots efforts like ORS/The Exchange.

The biggest player in this cynical game is a non-profit called Keep America Beautiful. This giant P.R. and lobbying outfit goes back to the early seventies. If you are over 40, you’ll remember the TV ads with the Native American canoeing through a polluted waterway and a solemn tear rolling down his cheek. This was truly a legendary moment in “greenwash”, and it was supported by all the big beverage, tobacco and food manufacturers of the day.

Currently state governments are making some progress on Extended Producer Responsibility. Right here in Washington we have some excellent legislation in place that provides for the appropriate recycling of some of the worst products—televisions, computer monitors, computers and fluorescent light bulbs. The next product category on the list is house paint; and we need to encourage our state legislators to pass the paint recovery/recycling laws.

There is also much we can do as a County. San Juan County should look again at banning plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers. ORS/The Exchange hopes to work with other interested citizens and groups to address these (and other) environmentally irresponsible packaging materials in the future. If you would like to help, please email us.