Make Producers Take Responsibility
There are two parts to the problem of bottled water: the water, and the bottle. In the intro to Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water (2010), Peter Gleick writes, “every second of every day in the United States, a thousand people buy and open up a plastic bottle of commercially produced water, and every second of every day in the United States, a thousand plastic bottles are thrown away. Eighty-five million bottles a day. More than thirty billion bottles a year at a cost to consumers of tens of billions of dollars.”
Most plastic water bottles are made of PET plastic, or polyethylene terephthalate, which is made from crude oil. Around 90 percent of PET bottles end up in landfills, where they take between 450 and 1000 years to break down.
Recycling helps, and as Annie says in The Story of Stuff, yes, recycle. But most plastic “recycling” is actually “downcycling:” plastic discards are mixed with virgin plastic to produce a hybrid of lower quality, which is then molded into something amorphous and cheap, such as a park bench or a speed bump. Downcycling can actually increase pollution because the process releases toxins, and because more chemicals are often added to make the materials useful again.
That’s where Extended Producer Responsibility comes in. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), also known as Product Stewardship, shifts responsibility for recycling or other safe disposal of products and packaging to those who design, market and profit from them: the producers. EPR is based on a commonsense principle: when producers are required to take back their products and recycle them, they will design them with recycling in mind.
The “bottle bills” of the 1970s and 1980s were modeled after a practice used by soft drink and beer companies before they switched from refillable bottles to throw-away bottles and cans. Bottle bills require beverage companies to take back their empty containers and recycle them. In US states and Canadian provinces with beverage container deposit return programs, recycling rates are higher than where there is no such system. These programs bring social and economic benefits such as litter reduction and recycling, with no public cost.
During the 1990s, there was renewed interest in this policy approach. Laws were passed in Canada and European countries requiring producers to take back hazardous leftovers such as paint, pesticides, motor oil, and medications. Since 2000 new laws in North America require producers to set up programs to recycle computers, televisions and other electronic equipment. Extended Producer Responsibility is catching on.
The Product Policy Institute has a lot of useful information on EPR: www.productpolicy.org
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