No Time for Wasting Waste

There are dangerous amounts of chemicals entering our air and water. Plastic is swirling around in the ocean and our landfills are overflowing. We stand to either poison ourselves, or get buried under a mountain of trash.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR), wonky as it may sound, may be part of the solution. EPR asks manufacturers to take responsibility for a product not only when it is produced, but at the end of its useful life. It is a "cradle-to-cradle" approach that promises to not only help tackle our close-to-capacity landfill problem, but also to reduce our toxic waste.

Here is how it would work: EPR would mandate that the producer take both physical and financial responsibility for a product's entire life. Companies would be responsible for the product after the consumer finishes with it. This would include everything from your favorite rubber ducky, to your toxic-flame-retardant-laden couch, to any unused antibiotics. EPR would not only help motivate companies to design sustainable, longer lasting, recyclable products at the onset, but perhaps most importantly, will incentivize them to reduce the amount of waste that is produced.

All kinds of chemicals are being found in our waterways. Everything from birth control pills to antibiotics to anti-depressants are turning up in our fish and wildlife. Utilities are highly motivated to reduce this waste in order to protect their water supplies and avoid costly treatment. Across the country they are working with pharmaceutical producers on take-back and product stewardship programs, and many are supporting versions of EPR programs at their state levels.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown finally did the right thing by regulating toxic flame retardants. Flame retardants are found in everything from children's car seats to your everyday sofa. Now that flame retardants are on their way out, what are we going to do with the tons of products that contain them? With EPR, the companies that made the sofas would be responsible for recycling them or disposing of them as hazardous waste. Instead, they will most likely end up in our landfills.

State lawmakers are responding with various pieces of legislation. Three producer responsibility bills passed in 2010 will help manage three problematic waste products: paint, carpet, and brake pads. We also need to support two other efforts. One is the CA Department of Toxic Substances Control's new Safer Consumer Products regulations, which will make companies come up with safer ways to make products like children's nap mats. The other is SB1014 (Jackson) that water utilities and environmental organizations are supporting to safely dispose of pharmaceutical waste. Both the new regulations and pending legislation will use a cradle-to-cradle and EPR approach to protecting public health and the environment for the long-term.

The time to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility is now.

There is no time to waste.