There is a difference in opinion among Zero Waste advocates about who should “own” manufactured products and packaging when consumers are done with them.
One view is that these discards should be considered public goods, owned by the community and subject to recycling programs that are delivered by or on behalf of the community, typically by or on behalf of local governments.
The other view, which is Product Policy Institute’s view, is that private manufactured goods should continue as private goods when consumers are done with them and be subject to commercial arrangements between producers, consumers and intermediaries who provide collection, repair/reuse, and recycling services.
PPI’s view is that public ownership of discards short-circuits critical market feedback to producers who design and market products. It continues to enable proliferation of toxic and disposable products, and amounts to welfare for waste.
Generally speaking, discarded products and packaging are not public assets but public liabilities. With the exception of a handful of products and materials (like aluminum), recycling is a losing financial proposition for local governments. For nearly every category of product discards, it costs more to collect the materials than you can get from selling the scrap. Some would argue that it costs less than landfilling or incinerating these materials to make a case that recycling pays for itself. We would argue that when the full responsibility and costs are transferred to the producers, then there are no costs for local government and the former argument is rendered moot.
The power of EPR to bring about waste reduction and better product design is in shifting the liability back onto the producers who created the problem.
All this is not to say that local governments should have no role in how discards are managed in their communities. In addition to regulatory roles (setting performance outcomes in the public interest and ensuring transparency and accountability) local governments have critical roles to play in making change happen and ensuring that the change enhances opportunities in the community rather than diminishing them. Local governments can do this through public education. They can do it through public purchasing policies. They can exercise their considerable zoning and business licensing powers to support the development of diversified local collection and processing capacity that will be needed to manage discards under EPR regulations.
Aside from this, there is much public benefit to come from robust local government involvement in the management of source-separated organic discards.
There may well be specific discard streams (such as household paper for instance) in which it may make sense for local governments to stay in the collection and/or sorting business in an EPR world, protected by commercial agreements that protect local governments and taxpayers from financial risk.
A fruitful discussion would consider how local governments can manage the orderly transition from public ownership that currently imposes costs on society to an EPR system that creates local economic development opportunities instead.