As Municipal Recycling Falters, Producer Responsibility Is Noticeably Absent from the Conversation

by Liz Skolnick

Don’t use straws, refuse plastic bags, pack a lunch, and avoid single-serving plastics. These are commandments we’ve become familiar with amid our growing awareness of just how much we waste. From reports of plastic-choked oceans to the contamination of Long Island’s own sole-source aquifer, we are waking up to the problems of too much refuse. And the heavily-reported recycling crisis that’s rocked the country’s waste management infrastructure has only upped the ante.

In recent months, a slew of news articles have detailed the failure of municipal recycling programs. One message has dominated that news cycle: “It’s up to you, the consumer, to make good purchasing decisions and save the planet.” Of course, there’s truth to this; our behavior around the goods we buy and the things we throw out—including the torrent of seemingly unnecessary packaging that has increased in recent years—really does make a difference. Tweaks to behavior such as bringing your own canteen and refusing plastic cutlery do add up. It’s important not to discount that. But lately it’s been looking like the pendulum has swung the other way. Is the national conversation around waste over-emphasizing individual responsibility?

I’ve heard so many people, environmentally-conscious and not, marvel at the sheer amount of stuff they are throwing out in the process of making simple purchases. Who decided that my new headphones needed to be wrapped in multiple layers of hard plastic that I will discard within seconds of purchasing? That the slotted spoon you ordered from Amazon must be delivered in not one, but three increasingly smaller cardboard boxes? It’s truly mind-boggling.

Most of us simply accept the framework of recycling as we know it. Throughout the course of daily life, we end up with stuff—mostly packaging—that we must dutifully rinse, sort, and set out for collection or take to the dump. But why are the activities and infrastructure of recycling set up this way? Where did all this “waste” come from? Who is ultimately responsible for putting it out into the world, and why are they not being held to account for the environmental consequences? Well, this line of questioning has been the elephant in the room for longer than you’d think.

In her eye-opening book Recycling Reconsidered Samantha MacBride, former Deputy Director for Recycling at the New York City Department of Sanitation, chronicles the rise of municipal recycling as we know it, beginning around the first Earth Day in 1970. Having undergone big changes in the way goods (especially food and beverages) were packaged, the country was experiencing a waste crisis. Cities were getting dirty; trash was piling up everywhere. Much like Long Island today, New York City was running out of room and options for waste disposal.

Environmental and community groups began to organize and initiate conversations about how to reduce waste at the source, as well as deal with it at the ground level. But when corporate entities, including Coca-Cola, Seven-Up, the National Aluminum Association and the National Petroleum Council, began funding these environmental groups, the discussion was radically reframed. Now blame was placed squarely on the “litterbugs” who throw their empty Coke bottles on the ground, and on the municipal agencies that had failed to properly handle the trash problem.

For producers of packaging-heavy commodities like food and beverages, recycling presented an attractive alternative to source reduction that served the multiple purposes of allowing container manufacturers to maximize profits through unfettered production, deflecting attention away from source-reduction initiatives, and allowing citizens to feel active in the process of protecting their environment. In the end, it was an easy sell and the recycling movement gathered momentum. Community groups started offering container collection in return for cash and eventually handed this responsibility over to city sanitation departments. In a nut shell, these activities, seen and unseen, birthed the modern municipal recycling system.

At the same time, efforts to stop packaging waste at the source were being blocked around the country by corporate lobbying groups. While a few states successfully passed bottle deposit laws and banned some refillable containers, efforts to renew the laws were defeated by producer activism. Attempts to pass similar legislation in Congress were also defeated. Meanwhile, producers launched massive anti-littering campaigns including public messaging like the memorable "Crying Indian" TV ad from Keep America Beautiful (whose current Board of Directors includes executives from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Phillip Morris, McDonald’s and Dow Chemical).

In this way, beverage and packaging producers were able to shift the discussion away from themselves and successfully carry off one of the biggest obfuscation campaigns in the history of the modern materials economy. The results persist today. We see them reflected in industry efforts to block bottle bills, the absence of effective product “take-back” programs, and the lack of dialogue around corporate responsibility for waste.

Producers of “waste-generating commodities”, as MacBride rightly labels them, have effectively conned us into picking up their trash for them—trash we never asked for—while they continue business as usual without regard for the environmental fallout. And judging by the tone of the national conversation, which has overwhelmingly condemned the bad behavior of individual consumers, history is poised to repeat itself.

But there may be a way out. We’re at a pivotal point in the history of the environmental movement. As municipal recycling comes crashing down around us, it’s opened up an opportunity to say: We’re going to do it differently this time. We’re not going to let manufacturers off the hook while berating ourselves for forgetting to pack a lunch. It’s time to create powerful, effective legislation around extended producer responsibility, to focus on upstream solutions that prevent waste before products even hit the shelves. Manufacturing corporations can and should evolve to meet the demands of a world increasingly threatened by the system of disposal they perpetuate.

Research into sustainable packaging alternatives is being explored, but remains underfunded and slow. It’s no mystery why, when there is no financial or legal incentive for corporations to invest in this research. There are a host of products that can be packaged in more environmentally-friendly materials. For those that can’t, the onus should be on manufacturers to create sustainable packaging that can hold up.  

It’s time to reverse the equation and rethink our priorities. Instead of sacrificing the health of our environment and human society to serve corporate interests, we need to change the modes of production to serve the interests of society and the environment. As our understanding of the damage done grows daily, the urgency of radically rethinking this system increases in step.

Note: For much of this article’s contextual and historical information, we are heavily indebted to Samantha MacBride and her book Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. New York Public Library members can access an online version for free here (Click the UPCC Books… link).

Further reading: