About Us

Upstream Policy Institute, Inc. (UPSTREAM) is a “think/do tank” dedicated to creating a healthy, sustainable and equitable society by addressing the root causes of environmental harm. Our mission is to advance sustainability, end plastic pollution and reduce climate disruption through product-focused environmental policies.

nautilusOur vision is to ensure that products are designed with sustainable materials and continuously reused or recycled into the products of tomorrow, creating jobs, business opportunities and a healthy environment. We work with public interest groups, government officials, leading companies and everyday people to advocate for product stewardship initiatives, where consumer goods companies are responsible for reducing and eliminating the negative environmental impacts of their products.

Origins: Building the Rationale for Sustainable Production and Consumption

UPSTREAM was started by a dedicated group of friends and activists in 2003. The two founders, Dr. Bill Sheehan and Helen Spiegelman, were pioneers of the Zero Waste movement in the United States and Canada. Through their work together in the 1990s on expanding recycling and composting, they soon realized that while recycling is important, we cannot recycle our way to a truly sustainable future.

They saw globStreet signs with Economy and Environmental production and consumption systems that were simultaneously driving the destruction of our wild places and local economies, and causing climate disruption, toxic pollution and widespread species collapse. No amount of interventions at the end of the pipe were going to change this paradigm.

They knew that to solve these problems, we have to work upstream. We have to build a circular economy where products are designed with safe, sustainable materials and produced with renewable energy. We have to ensure that consumer products and packaging are redesigned to either safely biodegrade or become manufacturing inputs for the next generation of products. And we have to build and sustain the infrastructure to make it possible.

Promoting Extended Producer Responsibility and Sustainable Product Policy

Helen, Bill and our founding Board of Directors recognized that the source of many of our environmental problems are rooted in a lack of accountability for the downstream impacts of poor decisions made by major companies. As an antidote, we became the first national organization to widely promote extended producer responsibility (EPR) as a transformative solution to these problems. EPR policies make consumer goods companies legally responsible for the environmental and social impacts of their products. When implemented well, EPR helps ensure corporations design their products with sustainable materials, and finance the systems to collect and recycle their products and packaging – building the circular economy along the way.

Coalition-Builders and Movement-Catalysts

StonesOver the years, we have developed policies and organized public interest groups, government officials, leading companies, and citizens to change the way we make products and use materials. UPSTREAM has been the catalyst and clearinghouse for incubating and creating multiple national coalitions and campaigns in this service. By organizing diverse constituencies into powerful networks and aligning them around system-changing solutions, we can effect change at a high level with limited resources. Our efforts – and those of our partners and networks – have established a legacy of transformative policy that is addressing the environmental impacts of products and changing the way we do business. More than 70 producer responsibility laws covering 13 different types of products have been adopted in 34 states since our founding in 2003.

Making an Impact for a Healthy, Just, and Green Economy

While laws are important, we know that legislation alone cannot bring about the change we need. UPSTREAM’s future will always be grounded in empowering people to change the systems which enable widespread ecological destruction and human suffering. Today, our focus is on building sustainable packaging systems in the United States, and convening North American organizations and individuals to align and scale up efforts to drive changes in the system causing ocean plastic pollution.

UPSTREAM relies on the support of individuals and supporters like you to carry out our work. Will you consider partnering with us and making a donation to support our work? Click to Donate