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Finding the answer to our waste-management challenges

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We could avoid the need for more landfills and waste-to-energy plants by recycling more of the valuable material that ends up there.

If the debate between Shawn Lawrence Otto (“Waste-to-energy technology is cleaner and safer than generally believed,” 06/06/2013) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (“Garbage burning emits significant amounts of toxic pollutants, particulates” 06/13/13) on waste-to-energy plants highlighted the controversy over the value of these programs, a recent front page article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press by Bob Shaw (“Time to junk trash-to-energy programs like one in Newport?” 06/22/2013) defined the issue in a way most environmentalists and taxpayers can agree on: After 25 years, we need to revisit the costs versus benefits of waste-to-energy.

Paul Gardner

What Otto and Hornstein (as well as many commenters) agreed on is key: We could avoid the need for more landfills and waste-to-energy plants by recycling more of the valuable material that ends up there.

Luckily, this lines up with the desires of many companies around the world, particularly around packaging and printed paper (PPP). Unlike the early 1990s when manufacturers turned trucks of recycled materials away because they couldn’t take any more, the demand for most major recyclables is higher than the available supply, not just in the U.S. but globally. Many of these companies use or want to use recycled material in their new products, but they can’t get it because the supply is not there or the supply is tight, leading to higher input prices.

You might be scratching your head asking, “If the market wants this stuff, why is there so much of it ending up in landfills and incinerators?”

Governed at the local level

The answer lies in the way recycling is currently governed around the country. Recycling programs are governed at the local government level, creating tens of thousands of different programs for consumers, and companies, to navigate. This creates confusion and tends to holds back additional participation. There are many good recycling programs out there, just not enough of them. Most local governments are hard-pressed to provide even basic services like police and fire, leaving little resources for serious investments in recycling education and infrastructure.

In addition, there’s the simple fact that governments don’t react to market pressures. As commodity prices have risen, cities and counties have been unable to adequately adjust payments to recyclers or increase collection to meet the manufacturers’ demands for more post-consumer material.

All these factors lead to the crossroads where too much of our valuable post-consumer material is being dumped into landfills that threaten land and water resources or burned at waste-to-energy facilities that might as well be burning taxpayer subsidy dollars. There’s a problem here that needs a solution.

The solution: EPR

As executive director of a national nonprofit that unifies the interests of global corporations and nonprofits alike, as well as a former state legislator, I can see that solution lies at the intersection of giving producers of material more control over the recycling industry they rely on and relieving local governments of the burden of financing systems they can’t afford. It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

EPR would require the producer of these materials, like consumer brands, to pay for the cost of recycling. In doing so, they would scale up best practices in collection, processing, education and financing. Legislation would be required to put this system in place so that all PPP producers participate and finance the system.

Companies interested in this concept are saying the same things:

  • We need more quantity and better quality low-cost material. More recycling means more supply and less price volatility when emerging economies are buying the same material to achieve higher living standards.
  • State and local governments are passing a patchwork quilt of product-related legislation, creating a confusing and expensive regulatory environment. We want a comprehensive approach that harmonizes regulations across municipal and state lines.
  • Scale up best practices by enacting a system that uses market forces to promote what works best.
  • Doing nothing is too expensive. In addition to creating an increasingly complex labyrinth of bad policy, the United States currently throws away $11 billion in usable post-consumer PPP.

Policy makers at all levels of government see this as a positive step to take. State lawmakers appreciate that they can ensure the fairness and efficacy of the system by setting recycling targets for materials and ensuring participation, while giving the private sector the freedom to devise the best solution. Local officeholders are relieved of the financial burden of recycling systems while achieving cleaner environments for citizens.

How does Minnesota fit in?

While Minnesota is above average in recycling rates and has spent 20 years investing in recycling infrastructure at both the public and private level, our landfills and incinerators are still negatively affecting our environment and our recycling rate hasn’t budged in 15 years.

At the same time, we have a lot of manufacturers in Minnesota that use recycled material, including paper mills, a steel mill, an aluminum smelter, a glass bottle plant, and numerous producers of high quality plastic products among others. They need cost-effective material to keep their thousands of employees on the job.

What does it mean for consumer or households?

Many Minnesotans in the Twin Cities and in regional centers in Greater Minnesota have curbside recycling access, but more and more communities are cutting programs or strongly considering it. EPR would help universalize access to recycling as well as the set of materials accepted. Perhaps more importantly for many households, the fees for recycling on property tax bills, utility bills or hauler bills would go away.

As witnessed by the Pioneer Press’ reporting, more effective solutions for our waste streams need to be found. Recycling is not always the sexiest public-policy issue but it’s one that our environment, our governments and our economy demand we take seriously. It’s time we put EPR on the table for a real discussion.

Paul Gardner is the executive director of Recycling Reinvented, a 501 (c)(3) based in Minnesota dedicated to advocating for Extended Producer Responsibility across the country. He was formerly a Minnesota state representative, representing communities in Anoka and Ramsey counties.

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