Continued from Part 1

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 time: 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, which 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, 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 and continues to play a monitoring role but it doesn’t collect the money or pay for the services. That’s between the manufacturers of the goods and their consumers.

After more than 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 “E-waste”—outdated electronic equipment—has also joined the list.

South of the 49th parallel, meanwhile, reuse and recycling efforts have progressed more slowly. Some municipalities have made progress with their curbside programs, but taxpayers and ratepayers have been left to cover the cost of handling used-up products and their packages. Producers have not taken on responsibilities commensurate to their role in generating waste, and advocates have been stymied in their attempts to hold producers responsible. The main obstacle: American industry has bigger political muscles than Canadian industry.

Look at the results: waste reduction and recycling in the states are done by the public sector. Waste reduction and recycling in the province are done by the private sector, or a growing share of it is.

Ultimately, this means that British Columbia is getting the prices of goods to more accurately reflect their true, lifecycle costs—such as the price of waste disposal and pollution clean-up. 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 being promoted and documented by the Product Policy Institute. The board of the Product Policy Institute includes residents of the Northwest, such as board president Helen Spiegelman. Helen lives in Vancouver, BC, and was long associated with the Recycling Council of British Columbia, which has stood out as a continental leader on product stewardship.

Zero Waste Washington (formerly 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 a fertile synthesis of approaches from the left and right. As Product Policy Institute board members 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.”

March 7, 2006