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.”

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  • 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 (pdf) 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.”