Friday, June 28, 2013

CATO UNBOUND: An Alternative to Municipal Recycling

By Bill Sheehan, Ph.D.,  Executive Director

A remarkable conversation is happening at the libertarian think tank CATO Institute.  The topic of June’s Cato Unbound is The Political Economy of Recycling.  Predictably, the lead article by libertarian economist Michael Munger from Duke University is full of bold arguments about the failure of municipal recycling.  There's plenty of red meat for three responders: Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes (author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash); former state legislator and deputy director at Recycling Reinvented Melissa Walsh Innes; and fellow libertarian economist, Steven Landsburg.  The bait is taken and there is plenty of disagreement along well worn lines about the value of recycling, commodities and landfills.

What struck me was that after all the ostensible disagreement, three of the four authors were in agreement that the solution to the shortcomings of municipal collection systems (aka “recycling”) lies upstream, with the producers that design and make products and packaging.

Munger starts his essay with the statement, “Almost everything that's said about recycling is wrong.”  For starters: the notion that everything that can be recycled should be recycled, or that zero waste should be the goal.  He argues, “we recycle far too much of the waste stream, because we use moral imperatives rather than economic logic.”  He advocates eliminating all mandatory municipal “recycling” programs nationwide (the bulk of Munger’s comments are directed at collection and sorting programs operated or overseen by local governments).

But after 4,500 words explaining the economic and moral absurdities of municipal recycling, Munger concludes:
“Ultimately, the solution is to refocus on market incentives rather than moral imperatives.  The organizations with the cheapest means of enacting change, and who have the last best chance to reconsider packaging of all kinds, whether it’s liquid, food products, or microwaves, are the manufacturers and retail distributors of the products we buy.  At present, no one is responsible for disposing of packaging, and so the state does its fumbling best to try to solve the problem.  The solution is to reconsider responsibility for disposal, at the level of initial production.  A property rights system that assigns disposal responsibility, and ultimately liability, to the manufacturer would encourage the use of effective market incentives to reconceive the very nature of waste itself.  And that might be less wasteful than recycling old ideas that threaten to bury us under a mountain of garbage.”  (Bold added)

Munger elaborates in a commentary: “[I]f we start asking the right question – not how to recycle garbage, but how to prevent garbage's existence – we might make progress.”  For example, the amount of plastic in bottles and aluminum and cans has been reduced by more than half in the last decade, he claims, but the answer may be to increase the sturdiness of containers so that they can be reused.  Fair point.

Humes takes issue with the “same old trash talk that’s been used against recycling for decades: that it’s too costly, or that it can cause as much environmental harm as landfilling, or that it has become some sort of unreasoned article of green faith rather than grounded in hard science.”  But he then agrees with Munger about the “real barrier” to recycling success:
“For it to succeed, recycling must be re-positioned as America’s last line of defense against waste, not the leading one. There are far more efficient, profitable, and environmentally beneficial strategies, among them: packaging reduction, life-cycle engineering, and replacement of incentives for wastefulness with ones that hold manufacturers responsible for the waste stream their products create.”

Walsh Innes takes issue with a couple of Munger’s points but spends most of her response describing a policy approach that delivers Mungers "ultimate solution" of “assigning disposal responsibility, and ultimately liability, to manufacturers”  -- using “effective market incentives to reconceive the very nature of waste itself.”  As Innes states, "Whether he knows it or not, Munger is advocating for extended producer responsibility (EPR), a legislated form of product stewardship in which the producers of a product finance and manage the recycling of the product at end of life.”

I expected the two libertarian economists to be pro-business and advocate for unfettered voluntary market competition as the solution to all problems.  Indeed, both Munger and Landsburg display the economist’s faith of letting price signals rather than morality drive decisions about what should be collected for recycling.  Munger, however, makes some interesting observations in a supplementary response commentary, Bootleggers, Baptists, and Recyclers

It turns out that Munger used to be a regulator at the Federal Trade Commission.  He quotes a former co-worker who described the unholy alliance between capitalist bootleggers and moralist Baptists that got prohibition passed in the US in the 1920s.  Munger sees a parallel in the municipal recycling field.  He sees a de facto coalition of fervent activists and “the enormous corporations that make up the recycling-industrial complex.”  The latter may not break the law, but they are happy to lobby for changes in the law that improve their profits and corporate bottom line.  For example, Munger notes, “the alternative to curbside recycling is bottle deposits and other kinds of packaging restrictions. Why do we recycle, rather than use these other policies? A pretty good academic case can be made that the answer is “Because the beverage companies prefer recycling, because then they don’t have to pay the costs of [managing waste] packaging!”

 Munger is not sanguine about reforming the municipal recycling system. If you explain the economic inefficiencies, he says, the moral wing of the coalition will smite you:  “Don’t you care about the environment?”  And if you raise examples where post-consumer recycling may actually be bad for the environment, such as collecting colored glass in places without markets, “the smooth corporate lobbyists of the economic wing will cite figures that show that recycling creates jobs and employs people in local communities.”

The CATO Unbound series on recycling is more than a rehash of the same arguments about municipal recycling that have raged for decades.  It’s interesting that most of the essays agreed that municipal recycling has not and cannot deliver all that is expected of it, and most converged on the solution of producer responsibility for waste to address the problem at the source.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Annual EPA Municipal Solid Waste report published

Below is the official statement on the release of EPA's annual Municipal Solid Waste in the United States report dated May 2013.  It presents data for 2011.  

The data are not perfect and do not measure what goes in any given landfill or incinerator.  What makes these data valuable for policy development is the distinction between manufactured (product) and non-product (organic and inorganic) wastes.  This is possible with the materials flow method used by EPA, but not with BioCycle’s mostly self-reported tonnage data on what actually goes in landfills (which includes a larger universe of materials that varies state to state).

Two bottom lines of the new EPA report:  Solid waste generation was flat in 2011; and the composting rate dropped.    
/Bill Sheehan
EPA has released the 2011 Municipal Characterization Report, which provides data on annual US waste generation, recycling, and disposal. In 2011, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted almost 87 million tons of this material. Our national recycling rate is 34.7 percent. On average, Americans generated 4.40 pounds of trash per person per day, and recycled and composted 1.53 pounds of it.  For more information on the generation, recycling, and disposal of various types of materials, please see the full report:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I learned at the sustainable consumption conference

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director

Courtesy of Patagonia
Last week I attended an academic conference on sustainable consumption at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

I have spent the last 10 years working upstream, in the field of sustainable production, studying and pushing for producer-focused policies such as extended producer responsibility.

To be honest, I have tended to view "sustainable consumption," with its emphasis on voluntary, individual behavioral change, as too soft a path to have a meaningful impact on the destructive forces that threaten us. I went to the conference to get out of my comfort zone and to learn what is happening in a related field.

What I heard at the conference were many ideas about source reduction, which is a major challenge for those of us working to incent and restrain corporations to be more sustainable.  I felt encouraged to be among creative and smart people grappling with this issue.

My take-away from the conference is that Product Policy Institute's (PPI) original three-part mission of sustainable production and consumption and good governance is the correct frame for addressing the myriad interconnected problems facing us. It's a three legged stool. 

Sustainable production – We view a root cause of our throwaway society as the production system based on high throughput of globally sourced cheap products, and the disconnect between those who design and market goods and those who clean up after them.  PPI has focused on implementing policies that make producers legally responsible for the life-cycle impacts of their products.  The theory is to harness the power of the markets, within legally mandated boundaries, to drive the production of more durable and less toxic products.  It’s an important piece, but not the whole story.

Sustainable consumption – The sustainable consumption frame opens the door to thinking about growth assumptions underlying the business models of powerful global manufacturers and retailers producing and selling ever increasing quantities of cheap globally-sourced, low-margin goods.  The book Eco-Business by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister makes the case that the core corporate interest is growth. Corporate environmental and social strategies have been increasingly used as business strategies to protect raw material supplies and gain advantage over competitors, all for the purpose of selling more stuff.  The sustainable consumption frame asks questions about unlimited growth.  If an absolute decrease in material and energy throughput is necessary to restore ecological health and stability as well as human happiness, then we need to address unlimited growth.  Reduction and reuse are radical agendas; helping producers make and sell more efficient products may be worthwhile but it is unlikely to lead to transformative outcomes.

Good governance -- The third leg of the stool is the hard one.  But it's crucial for addressing both unsustainable production and consumption. Governments and NGOs have so little power relative to multi-national business giants that we resign ourselves to working with corporations on incremental gains in a world desperate for deep transformational change. Unlimited corporate growth based on high throughput of globally sourced cheap products is not in the public’s or the planet’s interest. Intervention by government and civil society is needed to achieve outcomes in the public interest.  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ontario Proposes Individual Producer Responsibility and Cost-internalization

Ontario has finally blown up the dysfunctional and hated Waste Diversion Act and is proposing replacing it with legislation which will enshrine Individual Producer Responsibility and cost-internalization among other things.  The legislation is posted for public comment on the environmental registry for 90 days and then goes back to the legislature for a vote -- likely in October. 

As a brief synopsis, the proposed legislation and strategy consists of the following changes:

  • Individual Producer Responsibility - A move to making individual producers legally responsible for meeting outcomes set by the government, which would include waste diversion targets, standards, service standards, promotion and education requirements and administrative penalties. This will eliminate the IFO's as we know them under the WDA.

  • Strengthened Enforcement & Oversight - Proposes a transition of Waste Diversion Ontario into a new body that will have a broader set of powers and responsibilities to oversee the Act.  This new Authority will have compliance tools and clarity in its role and responsibility to properly oversee and enforce.

  • Visible Fees - Proposed legislation would require all-in pricing (no eco-fees at point of sale).

  • Municipal Role - Mechanisms are included to ensure reasonable costs are reimbursed to municipalities.  The new Authority has new powers to manage dispute resolution.

  • Increased Waste Diversion - New material designations are identified, including IC&I paper and packaging, carpet, bulky items, additional WEEE, non-food organics; a new standard for end-of-life vehicles; development of a strategy for organics; and a mechanism for disposal bans.

  • Waste Hierarchy - Appears to be better acknowledgement of waste hierarchy but recovery is still not considered as diversion.

  • Transition - Existing stewardship programs will be transitioned into the new IPR framework over a proposed four year phasing period starting with e-waste.  Blue Box will be transitioned over a longer period but the 50% producer funding will be increased at an earlier stage.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Organic, vegan Raspberries -- "monstrous" plastic pouch hypocricy

Great video clip from recent talk by Bill McDonough demonstrates one way to make the multi-layer plastic laminate pouches symbols of bad design and wasteful packaging.

In just over a minute he demonstrates the hypocrisy of selling healthy food in unhealthy packaging, using the example of organic raspberries in a pouch that can't be recycled, but can only go to an incinerator or landfill, and notes that burning it will not be healthy for humans. He calls it a "monstrous hybrid."