Changing the Waste Makers: Product Bans and the New Politics of Garbage

Thousands of solid waste bills were introduced in state and local legislatures last year. Their purposes ranged from promoting the use of recycled materials to authorizing disposal fees and requiring residents to sort their trash. A remarkable number, however, called for banning products and materials thought to harm the environment or to be overloading landfills and other waste management facilities. Portland, Oregon, for example, banned polystyrene foam (or "styrofoam") food containers and even has an enforcement agent known as the "styro cop." Maine banned "brickpack" juice containers; Vermont has been considering a ban on disposable diapers. Altogether, nearly thirty jurisdictions have now banned polystyrene foam or other plastic packaging, and hundreds more are considering laws of this sort.

Product bans are emblematic of a new wave of activist political initiatives aimed at reducing the refuse of our civilization. They are a dramatic measure because they deny producers a market and limit consumers' access to goods. They also illustrate a larger lesson about the potential of local environmental activism. As solid waste policy, bans have little effect; their impact on scarce landfill space is negligible. Yet the bans have prompted major consumer products companies, retailers, and packaging manufacturers to become interested in waste policy and to invest significant resources in recycling.

So, paradoxically, while the bans in themselves are weak policy, they have been effective politics. if environmentalists, policy-makers, and the public understand the incentives that shape waste management, they can use the political forces that product bans set in motion to produce good public policy.

At the End of the Landfill
The new political concern about America's garbage reflects a real crisis in waste disposal. The United States today produces more garbage than ever before as a result of population growth and rising waste per capita, yet waste disposal capacity around the United States has been steadily dwindling. Existing landfills have been forced to close because of state and federal regulations that set higher operating and design standards. Other landfills are simply filling up. Stringent regulation and intense local opposition at proposed sites of new facilities, such as waste-to-energy incinerators, have also made it difficult to keep pace with the growing flow of trash.

The worsening disposal shortages in some communities, particularly in the Northeast, have generated extensive press coverage of the "garbage crisis" throughout the country. The resulting public awareness, coupled with a groundswell of support for environmental causes, has prompted considerable citizen involvement in solid waste policy issues.

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That activism, however, is not solely a result of concerns about disposal capacity shortages or even the environmental impacts of solid waste facilities. It also reflects distaste for the "throw-away" mentality of a society distinguished for its fast-food restaurants, disposable products of every kind, and durable goods that are not all that durable.

Moreover, of all the environmental issues, garbage involves some of the most familiar and least technical aspects of modem life. The public can more readily argue about recycling soda bottles and banning disposable diapers than about controlling ozone levels or global warming. And because the garbage problem lies close at hand, citizens believe they can play a role in alleviating it.

Environmental activism, in this instance, also gets local political support. Since municipalities, not manufacturers, pay the cost of waste services, local public officials have a direct financial interest in reducing the volume of refuse. Most communities cover the cost of solid waste management in the general tax levy or charge households a flat fee for waste collection and disposal. When a city finds that it is running out of landfill space, the problem thus seems to be entirely its own; the garbage crisis creates no incentives for manufacturers to redesign their products to reduce waste, increase recyclability or extend product life. Product bans are attractive to citizens and local officials because they begin to hold consumer products companies and retailers conspicuously responsible for a part of the waste problem.

The typical product ban targets a highly visible consumer good or material and prohibits its sale or distribution in a given local jurisdiction. Most of the high profile bans outlaw products at the point of sale, especially in fast-food restaurants and grocery stores. So far no town council is threatening fines for use or possession.

But why product bans? In enacting bans local elected officials express in strong symbolic terms the public's desire to do battle in the war on waste. Support for bans can give a local official an activist environmental reputation or even a populist image for taking on the big corporations and out-of-town lobbyists. Bans can generate favorable attention from the press, and for politicians in communities without manufacturers of targeted products, the bans have few disadvantages. There is likely to be little impact on local jobs, revenues, or budgets. The sacrifice demanded of voters is negligible.

Unlike elected officials, local industry faces an unattractive set of choices. Some regulated industries lack the political weapon that usually proves most effective: the threat of leaving a jurisdiction with a hostile business climate. While a manufacturer confronting burdensome environmental regulations can move a factory to another location and still sell its goods, McDonald's cannot leave a community that has enacted a polystyrene ban without abandoning the local market. Moreover, since the costs of complying with product bans are usually small relative to a company's total costs, mobilizing against product bans simply may not pay.

Do Product Bans Make A Difference?
By enacting product bans, proponents hope to stimulate the use of products or materials that are more environmentally benign. But it is not clear that substitute products are really better for the environment. Many experts argue that bans do not reduce waste but merely change its composition, or even create more of it.

Originally, polystyrene foam drew criticism because it was manufactured with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), known to play a role in ozone depletion. Even after foam producers voluntarily discontinued the use of CFCs, environmental concern did not dissipate. Attention turned to the widespread use of polystyrene in disposable goods and its inability to biodegrade. To many environmentalists, fast-food packaging stands out as an egregious example of conspicuous wastefulness, even though it constitutes less than one percent of the total municipal waste stream. A chief goal of bans on styrofoam has been to force the use of reusable, recyclable, or especially biodegradable materials. Cutting down on nondegradable plastics such as polystyrene, went the thinking, would alleviate the landfill crisis.

The research of William Rathje, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, has called into question this push for biodegradability. Rathje has been investigating the contents of modem garbage for years as a means of tracking consumption patterns and other social trends. During the excavation of landfills he made an interesting discovery: virtually nothing degraded in most garbage dumps -- not newspapers, not plastics, not even food waste. This finding was no surprise to environmental engineers. They knew that modem landfills are designed to keep out water and prevent contaminants from leaching into groundwater. The same practices that keep out water also keep out air. Under anaerobic conditions, the rate of biodegradation slows dramatically, making landfills more like sealed tombs.

Many environmentalists have another reservation about biodegradable materials as a solution to the solid waste crisis. Since people expect the materials to break down naturally, they may not think it necessary to dispose of them properly. So, oddly enough, biodegradable products could actually reinforce Americans' throw-away mentality. Environmentalists also note that the much-trumpeted biodegradable plastics are not necessarily better for the earth. As currently designed, these plastics do not degrade in their entirety. Instead, they break into minute pieces whose environmental impact is unknown.

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Even if biodegradable materials were attractive, there is no guarantee that polystyrene bans would prompt their use. Nor do such bans ensure the use of recyclable materials. McDonald's and other fast food restaurants are more likely to turn to wax-coated paper, which is not recyclable, or to uncoated paper that cannot be recycled when soiled. They are hardly likely to shift to china. In communities that have enacted polystyrene bans, fast-food restaurants have switched not only to paper but also to other types of plastic food containers. The likely result of a polystyrene ban is, therefore, to shift packaging to another nondegradable plastic, a nonrecyclable paper, or biodegradables of no appreciable benefit.

Replacing disposable paper diapers with washable cloth diapers may also not be the environmental improvement many have thought it to be. Activists have criticized disposable diapers because they comprise as much as two percent by weight of the municipal waste stream, an appreciable amount for a single consumer product. But the effect of diapers on waste disposal is only one dimension of their environmental impact. The proper way to choose between disposable diapers and reusable cloth diapers is to perform a thorough analysis of each product, called a product lifecycle assessment. Such an analysis encompasses raw material and energy usage, air and water pollution emissions, the impact on waste management, and other environmental effects.

Several recent such analyses conclude that when all factors are taken into account, reusable and disposable diapers have roughly the same impact on the environment. Cloth diapers have their negative impact through the laundering process, which uses energy, generates waste water, and produces air pollution from the delivery trucks. Two of the studies, it is true, were financed by Procter & Gamble, the leading producer of disposable diapers. But the National Resources Defense Council recently published a similar analysis. If these studies are right, a ban on disposable diapers would deny consumers a choice without substantial environmental gain.

Bans as Political Incentives
While these analyses suggest product bans are of dubious value, the political impetus the bans have given to recycling is indisputable. Concerns about solid waste have been on the environmental policy agenda since at least the early 1970s. Yet only when product bans threatened to close up markets did industry take action. Now the nearly universal response of threatened companies has been to promote recycling.

The besieged polystyrene industry has created Plastics Again, a manufacturing venture that recycles styrofoam. One plant is operating outside of Boston, and others are being developed in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. McDonald's, a frequent target of anti-packaging crusaders, is participating actively in this effort. McDonald's also recently entered into an agreement with the Environmental Defense Fund to explore changes in its operations that could help ameliorate the problems of waste disposal.

Plastic beverage container makers, through the National Association for Plastic Container Recovery (NAPCOR), are aggressively promoting curbside recycling of plastic soda bottles. NAPCOR also provides technical assistance to municipalities and other groups embarking on recycling. The goal of these activities is not only to avert product bans, but also to promote an alternative to beverage container deposit systems ("bottle bills").

Procter & Gamble, a big user of packaging, has moved deftly to avoid becoming the object of the public's wrath toward environmental offenders. The company has launched pilot projects to test the composting and recycling of disposable diapers in St. Cloud, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington. It has also taken some initiatives in other areas of waste reduction, including redesign of some of its packaging to make it more recyclable and production of some packaging from recycled materials.

In addition to committing resources to recycling, industry has invested heavily in politics and public relations. Many companies are now promoting their consumer goods as recyclable and are bolstering their lobbying efforts across the country. Since state governments have the power to preempt local ordinances, the packaging industry has been mobilizing against product bans at the state level, where the effects of products on jobs and revenues are more likely to be felt. That strategy has been working, as a growing number of states have enacted preemptions. Minnesota, Colorado, Connecticut, and the State of Washington have all passed "bans on bans" within the past year. Several other states are considering preemptions. To gain passage of these preemptions, however, industry has been forced to negotiate with environmentalists over related waste policies.

Hidden Costs
Despite the public controversy and legislative maneuvering over product bans, that debate has largely failed to address the fundamental economics of solid waste policy. Underlying the new politics of garbage is a problem of hidden cost. Recycling, universally acclaimed as the panacea to the waste crisis, is by no means cheap.

The economics of recycling are driven by four factors: the cost of collection, the cost of processing, the revenues from sales of recovered materials, and the disposal costs avoided through the diversion of materials destined for incineration or landfilling. Recycling makes economic sense for a local community when the sales revenues and avoided costs exceed the costs of collection and processing.

Even when all the savings are carefully counted, recycling can prove expensive. Plastics that are bulky, rigid, and light present a particular problem because they quickly fill up collection vehicles, forcing them to unload often and driving up the costs of collection. For plastics, the sales revenues and savings on disposal often are not enough to compensate. Communities as diverse as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Barrhaven, Ontario have hesitated to embark on plastics recycling because net costs reached several hundred dollars per ton.

Some analysts argue that revenue from recycling will increase as the demand for recycled materials grows. In this view, businesses will invest in technology to use recyclables in place of virgin materials as the supply of recovered materials becomes more certain. And, in the case of plastics, the collection costs will drop as technology improves for compacting recovered materials. This view of the future may prove correct, but at present many of the materials under attack cannot be economically recycled.

Industry has sought to encourage recycling through assistance to local communities. Yet this help -- usually in the form of a piece of machinery, a public relations campaign, consulting, or some other onetime grant -- is of uncertain value if a community gets stuck with a costly, uneconomical program. At issue is not merely the costs of recycling, but also their distribution. Recycling is attractive to industry because its cost is borne by local communities, typically through local property taxes. The taxpayers are made to pay, and industry gets off the hook.

Disposable diapers provide a good example of the problem of distributing costs. When a cloth diaper service uses the municipal sewerage system for its waste water from laundering, it typically pays for that resource through sewer and water use fees. Those fees are built into the cost charged to the customer. When Pampers or Huggies end up in the landfill, neither Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, nor the consumers discarding those diapers directly pay for the use of that resource.

Some of the incentives in waste disposal can be fairly distributed at the local level through quantity-based (or "pay-as-you-throw") user fees. Because those who produce less, pay less, such fees provide financial incentives for waste reduction and increased participation in local recycling programs. Theoretically, these incentives should induce consumers to make purchases that take waste disposal costs into account.

Preliminary research done for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that for every 10 percent increase in the cost of getting rid of garbage, households reduce the waste they generate by between 1 and 2 percent. Thus a 50 percent increase in price would reduce household waste by just 5 to 10 percent. While this is not insignificant, it is not an overall remedy to the disposal shortfall.

Consumers' responses to price changes, however, depend on the choices available to them for reducing waste. If goods are not packaged in ways that minimize waste, there is little a consumer can do. Moreover, pay-as-you-throw incentives may not be very effective if waste management charges remain a small proportion of household and business budgets.

Changing the Incentives
The incentive structure is quite different in industrial management of hazardous waste. Here, the high costs of disposal and liability for pollution from hazardous wastes under federal law give manufacturers very strong incentives to use recycling and new modes of production to reduce the wastes they produce. In contrast, manufacturers do not face the same incentives to cut down the solid waste from their consumer products. To change industry behavior and reduce the flow of solid waste, public policy should foster incentives to produce low-waste goods and packaging. These incentives will help ensure that even when the public's attention shifts away from garbage -- as it inevitably will -- consumer product companies stay interested in alleviating the solid waste crisis.

There are several ways to institutionalize incentives to reduce waste. By far the most promising approach is to force investment in manufacturing capacity in a way that will change future production decisions, particularly about whether to use recycled or virgin materials. The legislative success of statewide mandatory recycling laws has led to thousands of community recycling programs. Yet because most paper mills, for example, rely primarily on virgin pulp to produce newsprint, the demand for recycled newsprint has been limited. In the last year, legislatures in Connecticut and California have sought to address this problem and create markets for recycled newspaper by enacting laws that specify minimum percentages of newsprint to be made of recycled fiber. The combined impact of growing supply and enforced demand has prompted newsprint producers to announce plans for new mill capacity for recycled paper.

Once the mills have invested in technology to use recovered waste paper, their incentives will change. They will be stuck with that capacity, and the marginal cost of shifting to recycled production after they have built the new capacity will plummet. Ongoing public concern about waste and the environment will not be necessary to make the economics work.

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A second way to institutionalize incentives is to employ product bans that are explicitly conditional. In Massachusetts and Oregon, environmental groups have proposed ballot initiatives that require that packaging be either reusable, made of recycled materials, or captured in recycling programs. Both initiatives specify numerical targets for each requirement. Packaging that does not meet at least one of these requirements will be banned or taxed.

In a related approach, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota enacted a set of bans on plastic food packaging in 1989 that elicited strong protests from the packaging and retailing industries, which argued that the banned materials were recyclable. City officials responded that while the materials were hypothetically recyclable, they were not actually being recycled. In any case, city officials did not want to embark on a recycling program that they thought might be uneconomical. What finally emerged from this dispute was a series of industry-assisted pilot programs to test plastics recycling. Though the bans are not conditional by statute, the effect is the same.

More interesting is the fact that a state committee convened by Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich and supported by industry is seriously considering a tax on packaging. Packaging or other waste-related taxes can help remedy the current situation by shifting a portion of the disposal cost to manufacturers and retailers. Revenues dedicated to waste management can help defray the expense of recycling. Such taxes are notoriously difficult to enact; they are on the political agenda only because of the threat of renewed local bans.

The new politics of garbage reveal a complex role for government. By enacting bans, local government has played a strategic role in stimulating industry investment and research. State and federal governments can make that investment permanent not through traditional command-and-control regulation, but through carefully crafted policies that change the incentives in manufacturing, marketing, and waste management. The policies might be labeled neoliberal but the politics can only be called progressive.

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