Jamie Rhodes cut his teeth as a canvasser against mercury pollution. He went door to door, raising awareness on the staggering amount of heavy metals that make it into our food supply. It was through this experience that he got involved in the extremely important world of electronic waste, and became a policy wonk on extended producer responsibility.
As the program director of UPSTREAM, he develops and promotes legislation to make companies responsible for the waste that their products leave behind. I spoke with Jamie on how deeply waste has become a part of our culture and what it might take to fix it.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Companies don’t think their customers care about waste. To them it’s not their problem. It’s a problem for local governments.
When asked if they should still be using disposable plastic packing, the response is usually “of course we should because it’s cheaper, and gets more products out there.”
But the impact is no longer marginal.
Mobilize public power
We need consumer pressure because companies will change their practices based on the demand of consumers.
We want to mobilize consumers in the US because that’s where the power is – force major companies to deal with it by engaging on social media along with protesting at their headquarters.
Can we push companies to actually reduce the generation of waste, rather than give them every incentive to keep putting more waste out there?
Of course, we run into roadblocks here. It’s hard to explain the problem. As soon as I start getting into the nitty gritty of extended producer responsibility, I’ve already lost you.
Fund the fix
My core principle is producer responsibility. This is where the company is financially on the hook for the impacts of whatever they sell. If the material is inherently valuable, then they should be responsible for the collection and processing of it.
What we’ve built over the last 40-50 years to handle waste doesn’t work now.
The pace at which new materials are being introduced outstrips the ability of governments to handle it. Local governments have a lot at stake here. But, they can’t afford to put $100 million dollars into a new sorting system.
That’s why the companies who helped create the problem should be helping to fund the fix.
We’ve actually seen some progress on this in British Columbia. The province has a fully producer-funded collection system. It’s a cooperation between industry and government in collecting and managing recycling. The government is being reimbursed by industry for the services they provide, and more local governments have started to see how much it makes sense.
There’s opportunity for collaboration to break down the wall that exists between companies and local governments.
Ontario has something similar, where they’re reimbursed by industry for 50 percent of the costs. But there, industry felt they couldn’t control it. In BC they had more control of the operation. And now, in Ontario they have been in legal fights over money and control. Transparency in these partnerships is very important.
The difference between Seattle and Vancouver
There are also inherent problems in a decentralized system of waste management. Each city has its own approach.
When it comes to plant-based plastic, San Francisco wants to limit its use to keep it out of their recycling system, but Seattle is actively promoting it as part their composting program. We need a singular product that works in both areas. And we get into problems with decentralized systems because each city has its own priorities.
Even a single company will pursue contradictory priorities.
Unilever in Canada is a critical stakeholder in running the extended producer responsibility system in BC. Meanwhile, Unilever in the US says that extended producer responsibility is a threat to their ability to sell anything.
How is Seattle so different from Vancouver?
They’re taking an incompatible position just miles away from each other. They’re thinking, “the writing’s on the wall, but if we fight it we can avoid extra costs for another two years or more.”
Culture of waste
Beyond whatever business and government do, we still have the of issue of waste and convenience built into our culture.
Disposable coffee cups create a tremendous amount of waste. “Why is it a cultural norm to drink coffee while moving?”
It’s a particular problem because the plastic liners inside each cup makes them hard to recycle. We want our waste to disappear without having to think about it and that’s a huge part of the problem.
Garbage collection in Taiwan is much different. The government noticed a huge problem with waste and so decided to make plastic visible so you become a participant in it.
On garbage days, you don’t just leave your cans on the curb, you have to actively put your stuff into the truck yourself. There’s someone watching you sort it. You have a system where people are aware. In the US we have a consumer engagement barrier.
There are lots of creative ways to reduce waste and engage consumers.
There’s FreiburgCup in Germany. If you want to buy a cup of coffee you put down a deposit and you get a reusable cup. When you return it, you get that money back. There are creative systems to recycle materials with return systems. We can always put an attractive incentive in place.
Of course, beverage companies don’t like container deposits because they increase their operating costs.
The world we’re seeking to create
Is there a way we can meet the brand need of getting product out there, without harming the environment?
I want my ideas to intersect with packaging designers, marketers, branding. The same marketing departments that have sold us on “we need more stuff,” can also teach us to be more responsible consumers.
It’s extremely important that we align NGOs in the US so that our advocacy is complementary.
We don’t want to be duplicating our efforts or providing contradictory solutions to the same problem.
We need to bring them all together to agree on a long term goal. To be honest, I don’t yet know how to get there. But that’s the world we’re seeking to create.
Tell us what you think. Is there a way we can meet the brand need of getting products out there without harming the environment?