The Networker  [Printer-friendly version]
May 1, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: The throw-away society, which is damaging the
planet and public health, has been encouraged by public policies that
reward waste. A new policy called "extended producer responsibility"
(EPR) could change the incentives and end the throw-away society.]

By Helen Spiegelman and Bill Sheehan, Ph.D.**

A century ago, when Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) systems
were new, New York City garbage collectors picked up more than 1,200
pounds of waste per resident per year. But in 1905, three-quarters of
that waste was coal ashes. Fifteen percent was garbage. Only eight
percent was "rubbish" -- everything else from scrap paper to old
mattresses, the discards that are now called "product waste" (Morse

Today, the ashes are gone from household waste but local waste
managers are dealing with more than 1,600 pounds of waste per person
per year. "Product waste" is now three-quarters of what people throw
away. And despite huge public investments in recycling since the
1980s, most of that waste is still buried in landfills or burned.

MSWM systems were set up a century ago in the United States to protect
public health. They have become a perverse public subsidy for the
Throwaway Society. More and better waste management at public expense
has given unlimited license to proliferate discards. Today these
systems collect 3.4 pounds of product waste a day for each American
man, woman, and child -- twice as much as in 1960 and ten times as
much as 100 years ago. It is time to revamp the system so that it no
longer supports the throwaway habit.

The evolution of trash The MSWM system includes wastes from
residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial sources but not
industrial process wastes. As the term "municipal solid waste"
implies, local governments play a key role in delivering services,
planning, and regulation.

Crowding in industrial cities in the 19th Century gave rise to
repeated epidemics of contagious disease and created political support
for public investment in municipal sanitation, first to provide clean
water and sewerage and later, at the turn of the century, to collect
and dispose of refuse. Municipal refuse included not only household
waste but also massive quantities of feces from horses and other
animals. Pressure from citizen groups like the Ladies Health
Protective Association in New York City and the Municipal Order League
in Chicago compelled cities to replace or supplement the private "cart
men" who collected refuse with uniformed garbage collectors paid by
the city. By 1930, MSWM had been organized in most cities.

Since that early survey of garbage pickup in New York City, people
have continued to discard about the same amounts of food waste. A new
category, yard trimmings, has been added. Coal ash is now treated as
industrial waste, not household waste. The key change, however, has
been the ten-fold rise in product waste, from 92 to 1,242 pounds per
person per year. Containers and packaging now represent 32 percent of
all municipal solid waste. Non-durable goods (products used less than
three years) are 27 percent, and durable goods are 16 percent.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has been keeping statistics on
MSW since 1960, with the most recent update being for 2001 (EPA 2003).
During the last 40 years of the 20th Century, total municipal solid
waste grew from 88 million tons per year to 230 million tons, an
increase driven almost entirely by product wastes.

Reduce, reuse, recycle During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the public
began to see polluted, overflowing municipal landfills as a crisis.
The understanding also grew that the world's economies were using
natural resources at a rate that is unsustainable. Proponents of
sustainable development suggested that advanced economies such as
those of the United States and Canada would need to reduce per capita
material flows to one-tenth of modern levels to meet the needs of
future generations of the world living at our standards. Accordingly,
in 1989 the US EPA established the following hierarchy of "integrated
waste management" practices for municipalities:

Reduce wastes at the source (e.g. by backyard composting, product
reuse); Recover wastes (e.g. by recycling, municipal composting);
Dispose everything else in an environmentally sound way. Thousands of
local governments decommissioned local landfills and built new ones
that would better contain contaminants. Local governments also
invested public resources in recycling programs that would reduce the
flow of MSW to landfills and incinerators. How effective have these
programs been? The big success story has been composting and reuse of
yard trimmings. This started around 1988 and has risen steadily by an
average of 1.18 million tons per year since then. In 2000, 56.5
percent of all yard trimmings entering the MSWM system were being
recycled in some way rather than burned or sent to landfills.

After 20 years of municipal investment in recycling programs, however,
more than 70 percent of all municipal solid waste is still being
buried or burned rather than recovered. The disposal rate has
decreased gradually (it was 90 percent in 1980), but in the last
decade the decrease has been driven mainly by the recovery of yard
trimmings. Product waste recycling has leveled off at about 30 percent
of the product wastes that enter the system. Four-fifths of the
disposed waste goes to landfills, the rest to incinerators. Meanwhile,
we continue to generate and discard more and more products.

What municipal solid waste systems can't do

Why has recycling not kept up with the increase in product waste? Why
are such large quantities of both product and non-product waste
(especially food scraps) still ending up in landfills and

The answers to these questions lie in an inherent limitation of
current systems for handling product wastes. For these wastes, the
EPA's "integrated waste management" strategy is largely beyond the
control of the MSWM system. The system cannot reduce wastes at the
source and it cannot require products to be designed for recycling or
safe disposal.

Waste prevention lies entirely outside the boundaries of the MSWM
system. And outside the boundaries of the system, reducing waste at
the source brings little benefit. In 1999 EPA identified a number of
challenges facing waste recovery efforts, including the lack of market
demand for collected materials and product design that makes materials
difficult to recycle (US EPA 1999, p. 125 ff). There is no incentive
to buy recycled material, whereas waste managers must continue to
offer these materials for sale, even when oversupply drives prices
down. Product manufacturers derive no benefits from designing products
that are easy to recycle or safe to bury or burn, nor do they incur
any costs when their products cause environmental damage after

If managing product wastes were an extension of the production and
consumption system, and the costs and benefits of waste management
accrued to producers, these problems would begin to find solutions.
Instead, MSWM has enabled the marketing of disposable convenience
products, whose convenience is provided by the MSWM system at public
expense. The provision of universal collection and disposal of product
wastes created conditions that made the Throwaway Society a natural
response to the laws of the market.

Giving up on sustainability The MSWM system was originally set up to
manage a waste stream made up of relatively homogeneous materials such
as ash and biowastes. It cannot mirror the exquisitely complex
marketing and distribution system that gets products to consumers in
the first place, so it cannot easily optimize the value of product
wastes. MSW managers tend to favor large-scale facilities for mixed
waste because they are easier to control and more predictable in cost
(Murray 1999).

The practice of managing mixed waste means that great quantities of
biodegradable materials, including unrecycled paper, yard trimmings,
and nearly all food scraps, are being discarded, mainly in landfills,
where they produce methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as
potent as carbon dioxide. Landfills are the largest human-made source
of methane in the United States. New studies suggest that landfill gas
collection systems may be far less efficient than previously thought,
and that proposed "bioreactor" landfills may actually exacerbate the
problem in the short term (Anderson 2005).

With product waste recovery stalled and the proportion of waste sent
to landfills and incinerators still at around 70 percent, MSWM
practitioners are turning to other schemes such as recovering thermal
energy from incinerators and gas from landfills. But recycling saves
far more energy than those technologies produce (Morris 2005). By
trying to recover energy from mixed waste, waste managers are
conceding defeat on the goals set in the 1980s to stem materials flows
and conserve resources.

Make producers responsible

Extending producers' responsibility for managing products when
consumers are done with them is a promising alternative to the current
system of handling product wastes. Known as Extended Producer
Responsibility (EPR), this policy approach requires producers (brand-
owners) to manage their products at the end of their lives through an
infrastructure financed by producers and provided as a service to
consumers. To be sure, consumers ultimately pay for improved
environmental performance, but including end-of-life management costs
in product prices is what drives innovation toward sustainable
products and services.

The precursor to EPR was the refillable container system developed a
century ago by the beverage industry. Ironically, this system is all
but extinct now in North America because of two public policies. One
was public investment in the national highway system, which made it
more economical to ship one-way from distant production facilities
than to operate local bottling plants. The other was the MSWM system,
which took care of the empties.

EPR has a small foothold in the US, where 11 states have established
take-back programs for beverage containers. Maine adopted legislation
in 2004 requiring manufacturers to finance the recycling of computers
and TVs collected by municipalities.

Canada has gone much further. Since 199l EPR has become established
policy in Canada for many products (Sheehan and Spiegelman 2005).
Ontario and Quebec are introducing a form of EPR that relies on MSWM
to recover product waste for recycling, with partial reimbursement by
industry. Other provinces are allowing producers to form their own
product return and recycling systems, while government sets standards
and ensures compliance. Comparing the two approaches will provide
guidance for future policy.

We believe government policy at all levels should expedite a
transition to separate, complementary EPR and MSWM systems.

MSWM should focus on environmentally sound management of food wastes
and yard clippings generated in communities. Government policy should
direct the MSWM system to provide separate collection and treatment of
organic materials and encourage research and development in this area.
Landfill regulations in North America should set a date for a sharp
reduction in landfilled biowastes, as the European Union did in a 1999
directive. Municipal biowaste management programs should ensure that
certain kinds of non-recyclable fiber products (such as waxed
cardboard, food-soiled paper products, sanitary products, and other
low-grade paper products) are safe for biodegradation. These products
must also pay their way through the system.

Product wastes should increasingly be managed through infrastructure
provided and funded by producers as part of the production and
consumption system. Governments at all levels can send clear policy
signals that EPR is the direction of the future. They can issue policy
resolutions and white papers; ban disposal of products that can be
recycled; require EPR systems for a continually increasing range of
products, and then keep EPR products out of the waste system; and they
can impose disposal surcharges.

The MSWM system begun a century ago has contributed to the
unsustainable growth of material flows in advanced industrial
economies. It is not designed for effective management of product
wastes. EPR is a promising alternative, but the MSWM system must be
adapted to support it. MSWM must gradually withdraw its service for
product wastes and expand treatment of source-separated organics. This
will, in turn, support sustainable production and consumption and
protect public health.


Anderson, P. 2005. Critical Review of EPA Model to Estimate Landfills'
Responsibility for Greenhouse Gases. Center for a Competitive Waste
Industry, Madison, Wisconsin, USA, in press.

Morris, J. 2005. "Comparative LCAs for curbside recycling versus
either landfilling or incineration with energy recovery,"
International Journal of Life Cycle Analysis, in press.

Morse, W.F. 1908. "The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste."
The Municipal Journal and Engineer, New York, NY, USA.

Murray, R. 1999. Creating Wealth from Waste. Demos, London, UK.

Sheehan, B., and Spiegelman, H. 2005. "Extended Producer
Responsibility Policies in the United States and Canada: History and
Status." In D. Scheer & F. Rubik, editors, Governance and
Sustainability: The Case of Integrated Product Policy, Greenleaf
Publishing/UK, in press. Available at http://www.productpol

US EPA. 2003. Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts
and Figures. US Environmental Protection Agency. Available at http

This article is adapted from the Issue Brief, Unintended Consequences:
Municipal Solid Waste Management and the Throwaway Society, (Athens,
GA: Product Policy Institute, March 2005). Available at

The Product Policy Institute is an independent nonprofit research
and communications organization focusing on the link between
production and consumption, on the one hand, and waste generation and
disposal on the other, in order to promote public policies that
encourage more sustainable practices.

**Helen Spiegelman is President of the Product Policy Institute. She
can be reached at Bill Sheehan is Director of the
Product Policy Institute (Athens, Georgia). He can be reached at or