Jamie Rhodes joins our team as our new Program Director. Jamie is an environmental attorney
with a long history of work on cutting-edge public policy. He brings a wealth of experience on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation while working as the Rhode Island State Director for Clean Water Action. He helped develop and implement a locally run take-back program for fluorescent lamps in partnership with hardware stores, and worked with state and national partners to introduce one of the first EPR for packaging bills in the country.
A little background
When graduating college, I never would have considered myself an environmental activist. I was a history buff with a political addiction. I was most fascinated by how the United States had developed a unique system of governance, though, as individuals, we are the product of the world. That’s what led me to law school. I’m enamored with the systems we set up to get along, solve problems, and organize ourselves as a society. Though I’m deeply concerned that, as a nation, we are no longer achieving any of those goals.
It turns out, the environment and conservation of our natural resources is at the core of what we are as a nation and who we are as a species. Failure to remember core lessons about our environment has led to the downfall of more than one nation and civilization. An inability to learn from the past dooms us to repeat it. That is what led me to making a career in this amorphous field that seeks to find a way to balance our consumerism with resource constraints. As I describe it to my family: resource economics.
I’m a nature enthusiast who gets the greatest thrill at teaching my own children the connection between nature and our daily lives. Whether it is eating the cucumbers we picked yesterday or turning the compost pit made out of the ones we failed to eat two weeks ago, we are attached to our environment. It is there for us to enjoy and explore, but that comes with a price – being mindful of the impact we have.
How did you first get involved with UPSTREAM?
I met the UPSTREAM team during my first week as Clean Water Action’s Rhode Island state director back in January 2012. I was going through orientation for the projects that I would be leading, and Product Policy Institute (UPSTREAM’s former name) was referenced numerous times. Our work primarily intersected as part of the Cradle2 Coalition, where I’d inherited a steering committee position.
Clean Water was beginning to focus on negotiating with PaintCare on passage of a paint producer responsibility law that legislative session, and this coalition, led by UPSTREAM, was the go-to place for a crash course in understanding both the nuances of the policy and the shifting political landscape across the country for these programs. Matt Prindiville was a critical advisor as we shepherded through the fourth in the nation legislation authorizing the PaintCare program, allowing Rhode Island to continue to be on the front lines of progressive producer responsibility efforts.
UPSTREAM and our collaborative work, especially through the Cradle2 Coalition and our efforts in developing model packaging legislation, turned out to be some of my most rewarding and challenging work in my three years with Clean Water Action.
What plans do you have for UPSTREAM’s programs?
First and foremost, coming on board will boost UPSTREAM’s capacity to continue its leadership role in the development and implementation of product policies across the country. There is so much great work being done that we need to be strategic in charting the most effective path forward that will make the greatest impact.
As always, a new staff member brings a new perspective to an organization. My past experience had me on the front lines doing outreach to legislators and municipal officials about the core policy efforts that UPSTREAM is promoting. I spent years in the halls of the Rhode Island statehouse hearing concerns from stakeholders and engaging in dynamic discussions about the future of one state’s materials management systems. As UPSTREAM continues to promote more sustainable systems, we need to be in constant contact with these constituency groups who will be responsible for making the programs work and whose political careers will be measured by their support for our efforts.
How will you measure success for UPSTREAM?
We need to impact the current way in which the waste management system works. This could be measured in new legislation passed to shift responsibility for waste streams away from taxpayers and onto the manufacturers who are profiting from their creation. It could also be measured in the number of manufacturers that decide to be early adopters of proven best practices when it comes to minimizing and managing the waste they generate in their business activities.
Regardless of what our quantifiable results are, our success will be measured by the public and private entities, meaning people, governments, and companies that push us past our current tipping point and into a future where our economy and environment support each other.
How do you plan to build on the past achievements that UPSTREAM has had in bringing EPR and product stewardship policies to the United States?
UPSTREAM has been successful in building fruitful dialogues with critical stakeholders in the field of EPR and product stewardship. From allied NGOs and local governments to consumer product goods companies, we have been able to bring seemingly disparate interests together to identify areas of shared concern and opportunity.
The next step is to translate this into concrete action. For example, we have all been made aware of the issues of plastic pollution in our oceans and the toll it is taking on marine life. However, there seems to be no coordinated response to this ever worsening issue. There seems to be no reduction in the use of harmful plastic products and little interest in legislative remedies to the problems. This is a space in which UPSTREAM can be most effective.
It is time to translate shared understanding of problems into action.
From an environmental perspective, what keeps you up at night and how can UPSTREAM’s programs make a difference?
I’m not a native Rhode Islander, but my family has chosen to adopt the state as our home. We are constantly amazed at the natural beauty of the hundreds of miles of coastline and the endless little rivers, wetlands, and tidal areas that we can explore by kayak, hiking, and swimming. Everything we love about our home is at risk. Rhode Island, being essentially one single coastal community, is losing ground to sea level rise, losing habitats to warming waters, and losing wildlife to uncollected and non-recycled materials.
UPSTREAM is working on a core issue that has largely gone ignored in the larger debate about climate change. While there is so much energy surrounding a move away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy, there is not enough conversation about some of the fundamental economic factors that are driving our addiction to fossil fuels. Our consumerism-centric economic model has been reaping financial rewards for those that spend the least time and energy considering the impact of the products being marketed to consumers. A lack of focus on reducing waste and providing beneficial reuse of materials, drives us to consume more raw materials and discard that which can be repurposed or recycled. It feels that we have lost our way and focus on disposability rather than quality of the products.
We need to change, not just as consumers, but also in industry and government. All three entities need to be aligned to reduce, reduce, and reduce. Addressing climate change takes more than electric cars and solar panels, it also requires a conscientious attention to the way in which we choose and consume the everyday goods that are the hallmark of our advanced society.