The new generation of environmental issues: extended producer responsibility

William E. Rhodes, P.E.
Director, Solid Waste Services Department
City of Austin, Texas

Since the beginning of recycling programs in the United States, communities, cities, and states have worked to develop programs that divert material from landfills. Some states have passed mandates calling for a 40 to 50 percent diversion of waste and bans to prevent green waste from entering landfills. The overwhelming mechanism used to achieve these goals has been curbside recycling programs that capture a wide variety and large quantity of materials.

Responding to the current enthusiasm for protecting the environment, many producers and suppliers claim that their products are environmentally friendly or "green." In the absence of environmental labeling standards, it is often difficult for the consumer to determine which products truly are environmentally safe and recyclable. Producers also do not always understand the relationship between their decisions on product packaging and the ability of cities and states to divert waste successfully and to reach their goals. Therefore, cities and states have begun looking at ways to directly involve producers in diverting or decreasing waste by proposing extended producer responsibility policies.

Extended producer responsibility is an environmental strategy designed to decrease environmental impacts from products by making the manufacturer responsible for the entire life cycle of the product. Historically, the responsibility for handling discarded products has fallen entirely on local governments. Currently, waste prevention, reuse, and recycling and composting strategies are among the options utilized for managing discarded materials and products in local communities. With the implementation of an extended producer responsibility policy, a portion of the responsibility for recycling products would shift away from the public sector to the private sector.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a program called Extended Product Responsibility. Although the EPA has not launched this program at the national level, they have developed critical components to help make such a program take shape. These components include outreach and education for businesses, voluntary environmental information disclosure to allow consumers to make informed product choices, award and recognition programs, and technical assistance.

A balanced blend of voluntary environmental programs can create powerful incentives for change by the private sector. Consistent with this concept, many progressive businesses see the potential of such programs to save money, drive product innovation, and enhance competitiveness. They accept their "responsibility" as a challenge and an opportunity to voluntarily develop innovative and profitable solutions. However, other manufacturers will, unfortunately, only react to legislative regulations and strict enforcement.

Clearly, extended producer responsibility is a multi-faceted issue with growing support from municipal organizations. The U.S. Conference of Mayors and its affiliate, the Municipal Waste Management Association, have consistently shown their commitment to the sustainability of recycling in the United States. As early as 1994, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution that solidified the commitment of the Municipal Waste Management Association to begin discussions with industry trade associations to explore the joint and cooperative development of an extended producer responsibility approach. In June 2000, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed the "Shared Responsibility for Waste Reduction Resolution" at its annual conference in Seattle. This resolution directs municipalities to develop voluntary programs for "Shared Responsibility," to adopt or expand procurement policies with environmentally sound waste practices, and to encourage collaborative consumer education programs between the public and private sectors.

The reality is that all of us by our actions can influence the environmental impact of any product we purchase. However, while the manufacturer, the distributor, the user, and the final disposer all influence the degree to which the product will impact the environment, the manufacturer has a unique opportunity to redesign products and prevent potentially damaging environmental impacts.

In August 2000, the City of Austin adopted the U.S. Conference of Mayors' "Shared Responsibility for Waste Reduction Resolution." The passage of Austin's resolution has provided the impetus for the development of the Greater Austin Waste Reduction Alliance (GAWRA), a voluntary and collaborative partnership between the public and private sectors to reduce the amount of waste going into Austin landfills. The City of Austin's Solid Waste Services Department is taking the lead in this initiative.

GAWRA has made progress toward defining Austin's waste problems and determining meaningful waste reduction initiatives. A web site that will serve as a waste reduction resource to the public is being developed, and GAWRA members have agreed to voluntarily promote focused educational messages to consumers. The current membership in GAWRA has representatives ranging from the technology industry, grocery retailing, and beverage bottling/distributors. The next phase in developing GAWRA includes securing funding, determining membership fees, and recruiting more business members.

The environmental gains from a shared responsibility between business and government is a growing trend that will allow the Municipal Waste Management Association as well as other cities to work with industry toward innovation in product development and marketing. Mandates may be necessary in some circumstances, but at this time the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Municipal Waste Management Association have opted to pursue a voluntary approach. This voluntary initiative is an excellent benchmark of how business and government can work together for the benefit of all, recognizing the diverse goals of the public and private sectors.

For more information about the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Municipal Waste Management Association, contact Gail Oliver at 202-861-6783. For information regarding the City of Austin Greater Austin Waste Reduction Alliance, call Deborah Salzman, City of Austin, Solid Waste Services at 512-462-4332.