UPSTREAM was started by a dedicated group of friends and environmental 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 global 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.
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.
Over the years, we 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 were adopted in 34 states since our founding in 2003.
While we have made great progress, even greater work is ahead as we turn to the issue of ending ocean plastic pollution. We recently organized a two-day strategy meeting in Berkeley with 27 of the leading individuals and organizations – working on plastic pollution in the United States – to begin the process of addressing the issue at a systems scale. Over the two days, the leaders of this movement brought their passion and expertise to the table and began to chart a path toward creating a world without plastic pollution.
We know that laws alone cannot accomplish this. Solving ocean plastic pollution will require massive changes in the way we use plastics – limiting their use for certain applications, stewarding the plastics we decide to use, and innovating to create safer and better materials for people and the planet. We need integrated policy, market, science and grassroots strategies and an aligned global movement to accomplish this. We are working in partnership to build a new North American network that can develop and leverage solutions-oriented campaigns into real-world impacts.
UPSTREAM’s future will always be grounded in empowering people to change the systems which enable widespread ecological destruction and human suffering. We will challenge our current cultural paradigm that says our highest and best use as human beings is to be consumers, and engage people to become citizens and co-creators of more just, healthy and sustainable economies.
We will work to build a sustainable future. Will you join us?
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