The movie WALL-E is a must-see, both as a perfect example of classic science fiction (futuristic world revealing uncomfortable truths about the present one) and as a glimpse at what earth might look like if we—oops!—bury it in trash. In WALL-E’s world, humans languish for centuries in a space station because the trash gets so out of control down on Earth that nothing can live there. Up in space, we get fat and lazy riding in powered vehicles and overeating processed food until neither bones nor brains can hold the species erect. (What did I say about sci-fi?) But there is a happy ending to WALL- E, and some recent good news about our actual gargantuan garbage problem.
In California, we bury or incinerate 42 million tons of trash a year. The good news? Hit-and-run trashing from businesses is being challenged by a city leader near you, including jurisdictions in Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties. These communities want new laws demanding manufacturers to take responsibility for the excess packaging and toxic disposables they dump on consumers.
Such legislation might make us less like the nearly boneless humans in the movie, save us money and help preserve our favorite neighborhoods. Did I mention it would cut greenhouse gas emissions and solve landfill-shortage problems?
Most of the stuff we throw away is packaging, neither reusable nor recyclable. After we pay for our goods, we pay again for getting rid of our packaging, and then for the disposal of electronic goods that become obsolete so rapidly. Toxic discards need special handling, which costs extra. For example, Del Norte County calculated that disposing properly of mercury-containing florescent bulbs was $7,500 per ton, compared to $100 per ton for other trash (their garbage rate is high because they have to truck their trash to Oregon). How can ratepayers possibly afford to cover costs like that? In other countries, those bulbs go back to the manufacturers who made them. It’s the law.
But California has no such law, and jurisdictions have to cover the costs for flagrant business waste. They have to dig new landfills or truck the trash while ratepayers foot the bill. Rather than dig up more land or keep raising rates to cover astronomically high disposal costs, jurisdictions want manufacturers to be responsible for take-back programs and smarter packaging. The logic is that if companies have to pay for the extra garbage they create, they are going to create a lot less of it. American companies that make international export products are held accountable elsewhere but refuse to do the same here in the States.
So communities around the country have banded together under the auspices of the National League of Cities (NLC) to make them do it. The NLC at its national meeting in San Antonio this month adopted a resolution to make manufacturers manage discarded products. The resolution urges Congress to back local governments that wish to create legislation to make producers responsible in this manner.
“Communities are driving this change from the bottom up,” says California Product Stewardship Council representative Heidi Sanborn. “What’s so exciting is that we have cities from all over the country on the same page on this issue, speaking in one voice. The council was formed three years ago, and already well over a hundred jurisdictions are speaking to the state and national government.”
According to Sanborn, any take-back rule is primarily intended to put responsibility back on manufacturers, because they are the only ones who can redesign packaging. It follows that costs for redesigned product packaging will be carried to buyers in the cost of the item; however, this increased cost helps to correct a “distorted market,” in which the real costs (including proper disposal of toxic or nonbiodegradable matter) are externalized and placed upon the shoulders of communities and their ratepayers.
“This means the distorted market will be corrected,” Sanborn underscores. “The consumer will see the full cost of products, and market competition will force manufacturers to produce cost-effective recycling programs.”
Take-back legislation will change the world, and make WALL-E proud.