Consumer goods companies have absolved their responsibility for the environmental and societal impacts of the products and packaging they produce once they’ve been sold.
Local governments traditionally hold waste management responsibilities and contribute to the recycling business as a market participant. The reason for this is that local government responsibility for waste was established in the beginning of the 20th century, but for a very different reason than recycling and materials management.
A Historical Problem
A century ago urban squalor and disease led citizen reformers to demand that their cities take action. Slowly, cities began to develop “sanitation systems” and became responsible for disposing of waste. But garbage was different then. It was mostly coal ash and food scraps, with a small proportion of simple manufactured products like paper and glass. Today, products and packaging comprise 71% of our waste stream, some containing toxic components. Producers of these products and packaging are given a free ride on a municipal solid waste system that was set up to keep cities clean and prevent disease, not manage spent products and commodities in a global marketplace.
Pushing the Problem Downstream
As UPSTREAM and others pointed out, starting in the 1970s, beverage companies and other business interests pushed for local governments to take responsibility for recycling to distract legislators from considering deposit legislation and other source-reduction efforts that would put the burden for developing sustainable packaging systems directly on the industries.
Consumer goods companies absolved their responsibility for what happens to the products and packaging they produce. As a result, a proliferation of new, hard, or impossible to recycle products and packaging materials flooded the market, leaving government officials to scratch their heads and direct consumers to put them in the trash. Right now, consumer goods companies can design a product, package it any way they like, and leave the problem of what to do with the product, its packaging and its environmental impacts to local governments, taxpayers, and garbage ratepayers. This is not a model system for the sustainable management of materials.
As a result of this lack of corporate accountability for waste and other driving factors, two-thirds of all that we discard is incinerated or landfilled, throwing natural resources, energy and jobs into the trash.
UPSTREAM works on extended producer responsibility as the critical link to make corporations financially accountable for the waste they create, developing incentives to design and manage products in ways that protect the environment.