DENVER -- Election Day is less than a week away, and come January, returning and newly elected legislators will face a mounting plastic waste crisis. Nearly 100,000 tons of plastic -- enough to fill roughly 1.5 football stadiums -- are thrown away every day in the United States. On Thursday, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund released a report, Break the Waste Cycle, highlighting producer responsibility, an emerging trend in which product-makers – not individuals or taxpayers – are responsible for the waste they create.
“Our current system rewards waste makers. Disposable products are cheap to manufacture, but they rack up a terrible cost for the environment,” Alex Truelove, Zero Waste Program director at U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said. “We need a system that rewards companies for creating reusable, repairable and resilient products and reducing waste.”
Our disposable economy contributes to many of the world’s most dire environmental problems. Extracting resources, producing goods, and transporting and disposing materials collectively produce 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Americans are universally exposed to both pollutants from excessive manufacturing and microplastics in our bodies . Meanwhile, millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, killing wildlife and spreading disease. Disposal costs fall on U.S. taxpayers, while environmental costs affect local communities and other countries that receive our waste. Because of that, U.S. manufacturers lack incentive to stop producing wasteful products.
Policies that put responsibility on producers -- such as the bottle bills championed by the state PIRGs and U.S. PIRG -- have proven for decades to be highly effective measures for reducing waste and increasing recycling.
"Governments need every tool they can get to stem the growing tide of plastic that is overwhelming our environment," said Adrian Pforzheimer, a policy analyst with Frontier Group and lead author of the report. "We know that producer responsibility works, so it's no wonder that state and federal lawmakers are turning to it as a sustainable and effective solution."
Over the next year, several states and jurisdictions will consider producer responsibility programs for packaging, building on existing programs that deal with other hazardous, hard-to-dispose-of products including batteries, paints and tires. The report provides examples of effective programs and offers policy recommendations for best practices.
“There is a future in which companies prioritize thrifty production values, and consumers aren’t left holding the trash,” Truelove said. “But to get there, we need producer responsibility.”