When I was in seventh grade, my friends and I started a recycling club. We found a place that would pick up office paper and coerced the PTA to fund wastepaper baskets, which we painted and placed in every classroom. We collected the paper — all those worksheets and loose-leaf paper — and got the janitors to let us store it in a closet for the recycling company to pick up.
We were dead serious. We were deeply wounded when a hall monitor accused us of using our principal-issued recycling passes to wander the halls when we were emptying recycling bins from classrooms during lunch or study halls. We were going to save the world.
The market for wastepaper goes up and down. It’s valuable one year, not worth the cost of collection the next. Same goes for glass and plastics.
And there’s no market for poorly sorted, contaminated bales of recyclables, as we discovered a few years ago when our biggest market, China, stopped taking ours.
That failure was a wake-up call. My seventh-grade self cringed. My current optimistic self, the one that advises that every small step is progress, cringed too. All our small steps are meaningless? The people who throw garbage out their car windows onto my road are doing no worse than those of us who conscientiously save, wash and sort what we are pretty sure are recyclables? Does everything end up in the landfill or incinerator, regardless of our actions?
We need to each do our part. But it’s not enough. We can push our organizations — our schools, businesses, churches, town councils, book clubs — to do their parts. But in the long run, it’s going to take big corporations to make big changes, and governments to change regulations to make sure that happens.
Maine took a stance in July, passing a law that makes companies responsible for the cost of packaging. The “extended producer responsibility” law has producers pay municipalities for the cost of collecting and recycling cardboard, plastic and other packaging materials, and for disposal of packing that isn’t recyclable. The EPA estimates that, nationwide, packaging materials make up more than 28 percent of municipal solid waste.
Oregon passed a similar extended producer responsibility — or EPR — law in August. Half of Canada’s provinces and most members of the European Union also have such laws, which ultimately make manufacturers and retailers responsible for “end-of-life management” of their products and the packaging they come in. Expanding EPR laws should result in more reuse and recycling, and less waste, and hopefully less production of plastic, especially less plastic packaging — which means less petroleum used and, ultimately, a cleaner, cooler planet.
Many U.S. states have focused EPR laws — making mattress companies responsible for disposal of old mattresses, for example, or requiring retailers to collect old batteries for recycling. Some states, including New York, are considering broader laws like Maine’s.
The up-and-down market for recyclables is strong right now, especially for plastics and cardboard. But new regulations, such as Maine’s new law, make waste reduction a long-term policy regardless of market cycles.
We could use more of that.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Sept. 26. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.
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