Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Carbon Omissions: Stop Hiding Behind Recycling

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director

An interesting article from UK has been circulating on several listservs connecting carbon accounting, consumption and recycling. I am reposting it here with a few comments to put it in context.

The article, which was published in both the Guardian UK and The Ecologist, challenged a government claim “that this country cut greenhouse gas emissions by 19% between 1990 and 2008….  When the impact of the goods we buy from other nations is counted, our total greenhouse gases did not fall by 19% between 1990 and 2008. They rose by 20%.”  There has in fact been a drum beat of articles shining light on this topic for several years.

Flow of emissions among major exporting and importing countries (in megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent).  From Nature, 09 March 2010.

The phenomenon is called outsourced emissions, or, more bluntly, carbon omissions.  It refers to the fact that wealthy countries like the US and UK consume a great deal of products manufactured in poorer countries, often using dirtier technologies.  Traditional greenhouse gas accounting misses this phenomenon for two reasons: they focus on production rather than consumption; and they only look at emissions in a limited geographical or territorial area (for example, emissions produced in the US).

In 2009 Product Policy Institute published an early report on this phenomenon, Products, Packaging and US Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  We engaged the technical expert who did the systems-based accounting for EPA (Joshuah Stolaroff) and got him to extend the analysis globally.  The result was that accounting for global emissions increased the US greenhouse gas impacts of making, transporting and using goods and materials -- which we labeled products and packaging – from 37% to 44% of all US emissions.  (For an update see 2011 presentations to ICLEI, Consumption-based GHG Accounting: An Introduction.)

UK is actually more dependent on outsourced emissions than the US.  In a Nature review of an important study done at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in Stanford, California, the author noted: " In some wealthy countries, including Britain and France, more than 30% of consumption-based emissions are imported; in the United States, the figure is 11%.”

Here's the article:

Let's Stop Hiding Behind Recycling and Be Honest About Consumption
By George Monbiot

Guardian UK, 14 April 2013

We have offshored the problem of escalating consumption, and our perceptions of it, by considering only territorial emissions, says George Monbiot.

Every society has topics it does not discuss. These are the issues which challenge its comfortable assumptions. They are the ones that remind us of mortality, which threaten the continuity we anticipate, which expose our various beliefs as irreconcilable.

Among them are the facts which sink the cosy assertion, that (in David Cameron's words) "there need not be a tension between green and growth".

At a reception in London recently I met an extremely rich woman, who lives, as most people with similar levels of wealth do, in an almost comically unsustainable fashion: jetting between various homes and resorts in one long turbo-charged holiday. When I told her what I did, she responded: "Oh I agree, the environment is so important. I'm crazy about recycling." But the real problem, she explained, was "people breeding too much".

I agreed that population is an element of the problem, but argued that consumption is rising much faster and - unlike the growth in the number of people - is showing no signs of levelling off. She found this notion deeply offensive: I mean the notion that human population growth is slowing. When I told her that birth rates are dropping almost everywhere, and that the world is undergoing a slow demographic transition, she disagreed violently: she has seen, on her endless travels, how many children "all those people have".

As so many in her position do, she was using population as a means of disavowing her own impacts. The issue allowed her to transfer responsibility to others: people at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. It allowed her to pretend that her shopping and flying and endless refurbishments of multiple homes are not a problem. Recycling and population: these are the amulets people clasp in order not to see the clash between protecting the environment and rising consumption.

In a similar way, we have managed, with the help of a misleading global accounting system, to overlook one of the gravest impacts of our consumption. This too has allowed us to blame foreigners - particularly poorer foreigners - for the problem.

When nations negotiate global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, they are held responsible only for the gases produced within their own borders. Partly as a result of this convention, these tend to be the only ones that countries count. When these "territorial emissions" fall, they congratulate themselves on reducing their carbon footprints. But as markets of all kinds have been globalised, and as manufacturing migrates from rich nations to poorer ones, territorial accounting bears ever less relationship to our real impacts.

While this is an issue which affects all post-industrial countries, it is especially pertinent in the United Kingdom, where the difference between our domestic and international impacts is greater than that of any other major emitter. The last government boasted that this country cut greenhouse gas emissions by 19% between 1990 and 2008. It positioned itself (as the current government does) as a global leader, on course to meet its own targets, and as an example for other nations to follow.

But the cut the UK has celebrated is an artefact of accountancy. When the impact of the goods we buy from other nations is counted, our total greenhouse gases did not fall by 19% between 1990 and 2008. They rose by 20%. This is despite the replacement during that period of many of our coal-fired power stations with natural gas, which produces roughly half as much carbon dioxide for every unit of electricity. When our "consumption emissions", rather than territorial emissions, are taken into account, our proud record turns into a story of dismal failure.

There are two further impacts of this false accounting. The first is that because many of the goods whose manufacture we commission are now produced in other countries, those places take the blame for our rising consumption. We use China just as we use the population issue: as a means of deflecting responsibility. What's the point of cutting our own consumption, a thousand voices ask, when China is building a new power station every 10 seconds (or whatever the current rate happens to be)?

But, just as our position is flattered by the way greenhouse gases are counted, China's is unfairly maligned. A graph published by the House of Commons energy and climate change committee shows that consumption accounting would reduce China's emissions by roughly 45%. Many of those power stations and polluting factories have been built to supply our markets, feeding an apparently insatiable demand in the UK, the US and other rich nations for escalating quantities of stuff.

The second thing the accounting convention has hidden from us is consumerism's contribution to global warming. Because we consider only our territorial emissions, we tend to emphasise the impact of services - heating, lighting and transport for example - while overlooking the impact of goods. Look at the whole picture, however, and you discover (using the Guardian's carbon calculator) that manufacturing and consumption is responsible for a remarkable 57% of the greenhouse gas production caused by the UK.

Unsurprisingly, hardly anyone wants to talk about this, as the only meaningful response is a reduction in the volume of stuff we consume. And this is where even the most progressive governments' climate policies collide with everything else they represent. As Mustapha Mond points out in Brave New World, "industrial civilisation is only possible when there's no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning".

The wheels of the current economic system - which depends on perpetual growth for its survival - certainly. The impossibility of sustaining this system of endless, pointless consumption without the continued erosion of the living planet and the future prospects of humankind, is the conversation we will not have.

By considering only our territorial emissions, we make the impacts of our escalating consumption disappear in a puff of black smoke: we have offshored the problem, and our perceptions of it.

But at least in a couple of places the conjuring trick is beginning to attract some attention.

On 16 April, the Carbon Omissions site will launch a brilliant animation by Leo Murray, neatly sketching out the problem*. The hope is that by explaining the issue simply and engagingly, his animation will reach a much bigger audience than articles like the one you are reading can achieve.   (*Declaration of interest [unpaid]: I did the voiceover).

On 24 April, the Committee on Climate Change (a body that advises the UK government) will publish a report on how consumption emissions are likely to rise, and how government policy should respond to the issue.

I hope this is the beginning of a conversation we have been avoiding for much too long. How many of us are prepared fully to consider the implications?


Friday, April 12, 2013

Opposition No-Show at RI Hearing on Packaging-EPR

By Matt Prindiville, Associate Director

On Thursday, April 4th, the Rhode Island House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources held a hearing on H5264, “An Act to Reduce Marine Debris and Conserve Landfill Space while Increasing the Recycling of Post-Consumer Packaging," sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown).  The bill would put the responsibility for collecting and recycling packaging and printed paper (PPP) onto the companies that sell products into the marketplace.  It would cover all packaging and paper generated from households initially, and would then direct producers to finance collection and recycling for all generators in the state except for industrial and large commercial. 

The bill holds producers to achieve a 75% recycling rate for all PPP generated by 2019.  It also creates a process to create recycling targets for each different commodity type – aluminum, PET, HDPE, etc – to drive continuous performance and prevent higher-value, easily-recyclable materials like paper and aluminum from subsidizing lower value materials such as many of the plastics with little or no recycling markets.  Finally, it directs producers to work with organizations working on marine debris to directly address the problem materials found in coastal cleanups.

Supporters showed up in force and strong testimony was delivered by local and national environmental advocates and businesses.  Jamie Rhodes from Clean Water Action, and the lead advocate working on EPR in Rhode Island, walked the Committee through each provision step by step.  Allen Hershkowitz from the Natural Resources Defense Council delivered passionate and eloquent testimony, citing the many financial and environmental benefits to the state from passing the bill.  Mr. Hershkowitz also stressed the national profile of the bill, reminding the Committee that, “This is one of the most important bills you will work on,” and “All eyes are on Rhode Island.”  Other supportive testimony was given from many local organizations, including local chapters from Surfrider, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

Business supporters ranged from Nestle Waters North America to Environmental Packaging International (EPI), a Rhode Island business providing regulatory compliance services to companies around the world operating under EPR and other product stewardship initiatives.  Victor Bell from EPI reminded the Committee that Rhode Island was one of the first and only states to pass an EPR-type initiative, which put a tax on all packaging to pay for litter prevention and cleanup. 

I came in prepared to square off with opponents of the legislation, primarily big trade associations like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Forest and Paper Association, the Toy Industry Association, the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment and others. 

But with the exception of the paper industry, none of the other big opponents showed up to testify.  There were only three or four opponents in total, and several of them were from niche industries looking to exempt their products (this always happens in bill hearings).  I was flabbergasted.  In over a decade of working on environmental policy, I have never seen a hearing on a controversial bill where the primary trade associations involved didn’t show up.

However, they all knew about the hearing because they submitted written testimony.  They also showed up in force to deliver testimony in opposition to EPR before the Rhode Island Senate Packaging Commission.  In my mind, this means their primary strategy is to work behind the scenes to try and kill the bill with legislative leadership.  An issue of such magnitude and public importance should be debated in public. Private lobbying and donations to political leaders undermines democracy and keeps the public in the dark about the dirtier side of our consumer society.

In the end, I think these powerful actors are in for a rude awakening.  EPR for packaging has legs.  There is a growing constituency of support across environmental and industry sectors and a growing understanding that we need new policies to address the widespread wasting of resources – natural, financial and human – from the unsustainable design and use of packaging.   

It’s only a matter of time before producers become responsible for packaging waste in the United States.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

How Curbside Collection Came to Be

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director

Many recycling practitioners in the United States seem unaware of how the hallmark of municipal
recycling programs – curbside collection – came to be.  Some seem to think that municipal curbside collection programs arose sometime during the 1980s in response to a civic movement, like the civic movement that successfully opposed new incinerators in the 1970s and 80s.  But that's not how it happened.

A new study published last fall in the Harvard Business History Review details how American beverage companies enrolled governments to set up, and taxpayers to fund, curbside recycling systems as they transitioned from refillable to one-way, disposable packaging.  Elements of this story have been documented before. 

For example, Samantha McBride in Recycling Reconsidered (chapter 2) tells the story of how New York City, in the 1970s, was led away from adopting beverage container deposits by the beverage industry.  “The industry's strategy was to recruit compliant [environmental] organizations and support their campaigns to push for changes in municipal waste policy (curbside recycling) instead of changes in corporate practices.”  MacBride tells the story in the context of a broader analysis of corporate co-optation of the environmental movement.

In Ontario in the early 1980s, the beverage industry provided seed funding for municipal curbside programs to thwart not only deposits, but also quotas for refillable containers.  As Guy Crittenden observed in The Blue Box Conspiracy (1997), “The blue box on your front porch wasn't dreamed up by government officials. Or inspired by grassroots environmentalists. The soft drink industry and its packaging suppliers brought in the Blue Box to serve a common corporate agenda — thwarting government legislation that would have foiled their plans to bury the refillable bottle in the junk heap of history...”  And: “By salting the low-value materials that we now find in our Blue Boxes with pricey aluminum, recycling the box's entire contents would become thinkable.”  More detail is provided in Waste Blues, a 1997 article published in The Financial Post Magazine.

The new study in the Harvard Business History Review is by Bart Elmore, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley.  I quote extensively from his paper here, but encourage the reader to download and review the full paper at the link below, provided with the author's permission. 

The author’s purpose is “understanding the elements of the American political economy that nurtured big business growth in the twentieth century.”  For environmentalists, the story provides a cautionary tale of how vigilance is needed to ensure that new proposals for EPR for packaging deliver results in the public interest.

EXCERPTS from:  The American Beverage Industry and the Development of Curbside Recycling Programs, 1950–2000.  By Bartow J. Elmore, Harvard Business History Review 86 (Autumn 2012): 477–501.


Many people today consider curbside recycling the quintessential model of eco-stewardship, yet this waste-management system in the United States was in many ways a polluter sponsored initiative that allowed corporations to expand their productive capacity without fixing fundamental flows in their packaging technology. For the soft-drink, brewing and canning industries, the promise of recycling became a powerful weapon for combating mandatory deposit bills and other source-reduction measures in the 1970s and 1980s. …


By the turn of the twentieth century, soft-drink companies and major brewing giants shipped thousands of returnable bottles all across the United States. Most companies relied on a network of small bottlers to distribute their products to consumer outlets throughout America.  ...

The shift to one-way container distribution began in the brewing business, not the soft-drink industry, in large part because the major brewing giants desired a cost-efficient way to break into the new markets made available by the collapse of small breweries in the wake of Prohibition.  ...

Profits that once had gone into the pockets of local bottlers could now be channeled into corporate coffers if the company could take over bottling operations. … Smaller bottlers who depended on a returnable system to turn a profit lambasted the government for allowing soft-drink giants to pass off the costs of container collection and disposal on the government.  ...

The one-way container allowed beverage giants like Coke to achieve record profits by shifting key costs of distribution onto municipalities. Coke’s success assured the consolidation of the soft-drink industry, as corporate rivals followed the number-one brand’s lead. The era of one-way metal soft-drink containers had arrived by the mid-1960s, and though the beverage companies would look to develop new packaging designs in the years ahead—Coke making a major shift toward plastics in 1978—the most dramatic conversion had already taken place by 1960. The beverage industry was primed for a new era of growth in the age of convenience packaging. The only question was, Would the consumer remain committed to this new distribution system?


The soft-drink giants’ switch to one-way containers in the 1960s generated prodigious amounts of waste that alerted consumers to the environmental costs associated with corporate growth. Thousands of throwaway cans and bottles lay strewn across the American landscape by the 1960s, and many Americans began to call on the brewing, soft drink, and packaging industries to clean up the mess.  ...

In the mid-1950s, the American canning, brewing, and beverage industries responded to consumer concern about one-way container waste by creating the first national antilitter organization, Keep America Beautiful. … KAB’s central objective was to deflect accusations that producers were to blame for the country’s growing litter problem.  ...

Coca-Cola developed independent programs to fight the backlash against one-way container technology. Coke’s vigorous pursuit of these campaigns was in large part a response to the growing strength of an environmental movement that increasingly took aggressive actions toward visible corporate polluters.  ...

Coke, NSDA, and KAB public ad campaigns in the 1960s and early 1970s certainly helped draw the public’s attention away from the fact that American companies were producing prodigious amounts of packaging waste, but corporate polluters knew that litter bags would not, in the long run, solve their problem of exposure. In the Pacific Northwest and New England in particular, legislators were frustrated that little was being done to combat the nation’s growing litter problem, and they pushed for mandatory deposit legislation in the late 1960s. The beverage industry had to respond with a more aggressive campaign directed to American lawmakers if it hoped to avoid costly pollution taxes.  ...


By the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the increased visibility of the country’s landfill problems intensified concerns about throwaway containers.  ...

Publicly funded curbside recycling programs, or rather the promise of such programs, became the U.S. industry’s primary mechanism for combating legislation that would demand extended producer responsibility for packaging waste in the 1980s.  ...

The soft-drink, packaging, and brewing industries held out recycling as the panacea that would solve the nation’s litter problems. Companies in these industries knew that they had to take preemptive steps to combat growing consumer concerns, and they believed recycling could be touted as an effective industry alternative to mandatory deposit schemes.  ...

Unable on their own to clean up the mess they helped create, the nation’s big beverage companies turned to federal and local government agencies in the 1970s and 1980s to help develop solid-waste management programs that would keep corporate waste out of sight. Opposing initiatives requiring producers to pay for industry pollution, beverage companies lobbied for “comprehensive” recycling programs to solve the problem. Recycling became a corporate weapon in a fierce battle to undermine mandatory deposit legislation and bans on nonreturnable packaging, point-source pollution reduction programs popular among environmentalists in the “Age of Ecology.” …

In the end, industry lobbyists were victorious, pushing through legislation at the federal, state, and municipal levels that established recycling programs as the cure-all for the nation’s solid-waste problems. Recycling became the exclusive solution rather than the complement to mandatory source-reduction programs. While Coke and its corporate partners continued to produce billions of one-way containers, municipalities took on new debts in order to deal with the mounting piles of trash.  ...

This highly visible corporate greening campaign, however, represented the veneer of a much larger system that had to be built from the ground up, largely by city governments and largely with taxpayer dollars. … Because the costs of cleaning up the mess were distributed, in other words, few citizens recognized the huge capital outlays that were being made by the public on behalf of private industry. Beverage and packaging companies had found a way to enroll local governments in a nationwide corporate cleanup and had done so without drawing the ire of an American citizenry typically averse to government bailouts of private industry. They succeeded because the support they received was largely invisible to the public.  ...

The beverage industry positioned itself as the keystone of the recycling system. Through the end of the 1980s, soft-drink, brewing, and beverage-packaging companies sought to convince citizens and lawmakers alike that container waste was the essential fuel driving nascent [curbside] recycling programs. … Coke and its industry allies argued that the diversion of aluminum cans from the waste reclamation stream via deposit laws would eliminate the majority of the revenue generated from sales of recyclables.  ...

The soft drink industry’s appeal proved effective. After 1986, only one other state (Hawaii) passed a mandatory deposit law. Most municipalities committed substantial resources and political support to the development of what the industry called “comprehensive” recycling programs. In 1986, only Rhode Island had a mandatory statewide recycling law on the books, but, just three years later, twenty-six states had passed laws requiring recycling as a component of solid-waste reduction, and seven states mandated the creation of statewide curbside programs. The number of curbside programs in the United States increased from just six hundred in 1989 to over four thousand in 1992. With the rise of curbside recycling, industries abandoned many of their own buyback programs and began to rely largely on municipal services that required them to pay no extra fees.  ...

By the end of the 1990s, publicly funded recycling programs had become accepted as the method for cleaning up industry container waste.