The gist:

A new twist on an old idea can multiply the reuse and recycling of materials and encourage manufacturers to eliminate pollution before it happens.


The old idea is the bottle bill, or deposit-refund system, long standard for bottles and cans in British Columbia, California, and Oregon—jurisdictions that are home to more than half of northwesterners.

The new twist is the German philosophy of holding manufacturers responsible for their wares and packaging as long as these items exist. This “extended producer responsibility,” or “take-back,” approach to solid waste means, in effect, that if you make a consumer good, you own it forever.

The consumer merely rents it for the services it provides, and when those services are done-say, after the last sip of soda pop-the good goes back to its maker, who must reuse or recycle it.

Extended-responsibility legislation in Germany, enacted in 1991, increased the recycling of packaging in Germany sevenfold in five years, reduced per capita consumption of packaging by 13 percent overall, and revived reusable containers. Three-fourths of the country’s fresh produce, for example, is now shipped in durable crates.

Northwest jurisdictions have also considered variations on “take-back” legislation, including an e-waste bill in Washington in 2006.

Transforming product design

As important, end-of-life responsibility has transformed product design:
manufacturers strive to eliminate anything that’s hard to handle when their goods come back, such as toxic components and parts difficult to recycle or reuse.

More than two dozen countries now require “take-backs” for packaging, and a dozen are planning take-backs for computers and other electronics. Washington may take a leading role: In the last session, the legislature agreed to study the issue of computer recycling for 18 months.

British Columbia is the region’s deposit-refund pioneer, having enacted North America’s first bottle bill in 1970. Oregon followed with the first US bottle bill in 1971.

Though Oregon’s bottle bill has changed little in a quarter century, British Columbia has, since 1992, turned its deposit-refund program into a true take-back program, adding motor oil, paint, household solvents, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and most types of drink containers not previously covered. The return rate for this last category soared to 77 percent in the two years after its inclusion. (See related article.)

Companies need not wait for government mandates but can instead seek profits in reducing waste. Some corporations active in the Northwest have voluntarily taken responsibility for their goods’ entire life cycle, a step in converting their business from a product-sales model to a service-contracts model.

Xerox, for example, leases most of its copiers and, when the leases end, refurbishes the equipment for reuse. Herman-Miller, a furniture manufacturer, reclaims and reconditions its products for resale. Carpet maker Interface leases floor-covering services rather than selling rugs. The company retains ownership of its carpet, which it installs as tiles to allow periodic replacement of worn segments. At its factories, Interface separates the worn tiles into their parts and remakes them.

Excerpted from This Place on Earth 2001: Guide to a Sustainable Northwest (see pdf for full details and endnotes)

March 7, 2006