All across the United States, local governments, who carry the burden of waste disposal for their communities, have been overwhelmed by literal mountains of hazardous waste that are the byproducts—the unintended consequences—of our voracious consumer society. Because local governments are rarely if ever equipped to deal with a disposal problem of this magnitude, the result is that there has been a tremendous amount of dangerous substances leaching out from landfills, or out-gassing from incinerators into our air, our water and our bodies, taking a tremendous toll on our environment and our health. Some might say that the buck has been passed to them, both by the manufacturers who design these consumer goods, as well as the people who sell them and the people who buy them.
Robert D’Arcy, the Hazardous Material Manager for Santa Clara County, California said, “Local governments sit at the end of the pipe and unfortunately we fail miserably when it comes to managing these things, because we can’t effectively reach those people.”
In most industrial countries in the world, there are product stewardship laws that require manufacturers to bear responsibility for the ultimate disposition of their products, particularly if they contain toxic or otherwise dangerous components. But not here. Why? Because what little dialog there has been between the stakeholders in this issue— businesses, local governments, and environmental groups—has been suspicious, and contentious if not outright adversarial, so there has been little progress in coming up with a legislative solution. Until this week, that is, when Maine governor John Baldacci signed the “Act to Provide Leadership Regarding the Responsible Recycling of Consumer Products.” Representatives from several other states and D’Arcy were on hand to emphasize the national significance of the moment.
This bill, a first in the nation, provides a comprehensive framework which includes “principles and a transparent predictable process to identify products appropriate for product stewardship,” according to Bill Sheehan, Executive Director of the Product Policy Institute, which helped develop the framework and facilitate the lengthy and sometimes difficult discussions between state officials, environmental groups and the Chamber of Commerce, which ultimately led to the unanimous passage of the bill in both the state senate and house.
“Initially the Chamber of Commerce was opposed to the bill,” said Heidi Sanborn, PPI’s Outreach Director, “fearing that they would be burdened with regulations without any input to the process. They cited previous examples where government imposed rules on them without having a full grasp of the consequences. But once they saw that it was an open process, they began to engage.”
Dana Connors, President of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, said: “LD 1631 is a true example of the best of the legislative process. [It] establishes a simple and reasonable framework for identifying products appropriate for product stewardship, along with ways to improve existing product stewardship programs already on the books in Maine. …I’m proud of the Chamber’s role in this important issue, and excited about the opportunities going forward to build on the relationships forged during the work on LD 1631.”
Melissa Walsh Innes, sponsor of the bill, who worked tirelessly to achieve consensus, said at the signing ceremony Thursday, “Mainers can be proud of their business leaders and legislators for coming together to pass this unprecedented producer responsibility framework law. ”
What had to happen to make this work, happened here. Business leaders, environmental groups and government officials all sat down at the table and they all listened to each other.
Thirty-two states already have some form of Product Stewardship Program for individual products, but what makes this law truly unique is the establishment of a comprehensive framework.
This approach had evolved separately, both in Europe and Canada, as the best approach to product stewardship. Instead of having to invent a new process to determine each new product that would require stewardship as had been the practice before, the framework allows the process itself to be recycled, if you’ll pardon the pun.
“First there is a public comment period,” said Sanborn, “then a report is submitted to the legislative Natural Resource Committee by the Department of Environment Protection, then the committee can decide to go ahead and put out a bill regarding a product that was in the report. Once you’ve determined that a given product is a good candidate for stewardship, there should be no difference in the process. The implementation of the product stewardship program will be left completely up to the manufacturers. In other words, this is a small government, private sector heavy program. The law tells the manufacturers what, but not how. Once a bill is passed, it goes back to the DEP to be implemented and enforced. Part of the enforcement will be to make sure that you don’t have free riders, that is, companies that are selling into the state without providing stewardship of the product when it comes time for them to be returned. That would put them at a competitive advantage. You need to maintain a level playing field for all the businesses.”
Other states are watching. “There will definitely be a domino effect,” Sanborn said. The states of WA, OR, CA, MN, RI and others are all considering similar legislation.
This is a great example of green job creation. Product recovery and recycling is a lot more labor intensive than dumping waste in a landfill. British Columbia documented the creation of 2200 new jobs just covering the stewardship of eight products.
Matt Prindeville, of Natural Resource Council of Maine, an environmental group, also at the signing, said, “giving the manufacturers the responsibility for final disposition, you internalize the cost of collection and recycling into the price of the product.”
RP Siegel is co-author of the sustainability thriller Vapor Trails, a story about the impacts we leave in our wake that we may not see.