SWANA is pleased to highlight some of the essays submitted as part of SWANA's Grant H. Flint International Scholarship Program.
By: Abigail Ventrone
Recently, there has been much media coverage about municipalities throughout the United States suspending their curbside recycling programs in response to a worldwide recession in the recyclable markets. The recession was brought about China’s decision to set contamination limits on imported recyclables. For many years, China was the world's largest purchaser of the world's recyclable materials. However, China has decided that rather than continue to import recyclables, it would encourage the development of a recycling structure within its own borders. The contamination restrictions that were put in place are very difficult to meet for most items and nearly impossible to meet for some. As a result, recycling collection facilities have had an increasingly difficult time marketing their materials and many municipal programs have come to a halt. China recently announced plans to completely end the import of recyclables by 2020, so it appears this issue will not be going away in the near future.
Recycling is a fundamental element of environmental management, taking its place with Reduce and Reuse in the often cited waste hierarchy. In light of recent developments, much work needs to be done to ensure that recycling programs survive in the U.S. and throughout the world. Strengthening recycling programs will require increased public education to reduce contamination in recycling and to end “wish-cycling” (or the recycling of items that aren’t truly recyclable). It will also require investment to build a strong domestic recycling industry and to improve the efficiency of recycling collection facilities. However, while those initiatives would address individuals who generate waste and the professionals who manage waste, I’d like to discuss another component: the product manufactures. There are many products that are either too difficult or too costly to recycle. If these items could be removed from the waste stream for recycling or safe disposal, it would allow municipalities to focus more on the items they can handle.
Product stewardship is a movement that calls upon manufacturers to take responsibility to reduce the environmental impacts of their products, especially in the case of products that are difficult to safely dispose of or to recycle. It requires manufacturers to be involved in the management of a product after its useful lifespan. Many states have passed producer responsibility laws pertaining to electronic equipment, while others have passed such laws for paint, batteries, and devices containing mercury. As the product stewardship movement grows, there are more and more state bills introduced each year that would address not only these products, but mattresses, carpets, pharmaceuticals, smoke detectors, and others,
Recently, there has also been a push within the product stewardship movement to pass extended producer responsibility laws for packaging. Nowadays, when you purchase an item, especially through an online service, it is delivered with layer upon layer of packing: clamshell container, foam peanuts, cardboard box, etc. If laws were put in place requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for the handling of the packaging materials, it would not only increase the recycling of these materials but also free up money for municipalities to focus on other items.
Waste management is a vital issue that will only gain in importance in the coming years, as more and more waste is produced and there are fewer avenues for disposing of it without damaging our natural resources. Public education and an emphasis on reduction of waste generation and reuse will be important components of future programs. However, the world will always continue to produce waste so it will need to be managed. For these reasons, product stewardship will need to be a key component of any efficient environmental management program.
Abigail will study political science at University of Rochester. She plans on attending law school and practicing environmental law after getting her undergrad degree. She was nominated by the SWANA New York Chapter.