Solid Waste & Recycling


Comments on my suggestion: EPR for residual waste

UPSTREAM founder Bill Sheehan. (The organization was formerly called the Product Policy Institute.)

UPSTREAM founder Bill Sheehan. (The organization was formerly called the Product Policy Institute.)

I was flattered to notice that product and waste policy think-tank UPSTREAM chose to repost my recent online article “The Problem with the ‘Waste’ Concept and Transitioning to a Circular Economy,” about which the organization said, “It is one of the more significant things I have read in the materials management space since Samantha MacBride’s 2011 book, Recycling Reconsidered. Like all good paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, it is so simple it sounds obvious.”

You can read my original post here.

The article triggered an interesting message exchange that I’ve posted below. (Note that I didn’t ask permission so I’ve omitted the names of the original posters. So you can follow which sentences belong to which post, I’ve alternated bold and unbold format for each post.)

As an aside, we recently learned that UPSTREAM’s long-term Executive Director Bill Sheehan is retiring. Though he’ll apparently still have a role on the board and will — we assume — remain plugged in to the issues, his hands-on leadership at the organization will be missed. Best wishes, Bill, from all the staff at Solid Waste & Recycling magazine.

Here are some of the messages from the UPSTREAM discussion:

Guy has nailed it and I couldn’t agree more.  To truly get to zero waste, EPR laws and possibly other regulations need to charge producers (consumers, actually, through the price of products) for the wastes (as Guy redefines them, “byproduct materials”) that still get tracked to landfill or incineration.  These charges need to be a significant multiple of what EPR systems impose to pay for recycling so that they drive producers to both change product designs and types and invest in better recycling infrastructure, perhaps earmarking these “garbage” charges as capital grants for technical improvements to MRFs as I proposed in my blog item a month ago.


I think we all agree and many have been saying this for decades!!!

So how do we force the change that is needed ASAP?


I would start by changing the way we define EPR.  Right now EPR laws only require PROs to pay for recycling, which means that increasing recycling costs them money.  It’s a disincentive rather than an incentive.  If EPR also assesses significant “garbage” charges, there will be an incentive to avoid those costs by investing in recycling.


To my understanding, the terms garbage, rubbish and trash in English evolved slowly but poorly over time to reflect different types of unwanted, discardable materials. Of no value to the owner but of potential value to the handler. (Any material that can be reprocessed to re-enter the stream of commerce is of value, however small in its existing state at the time of discarding. Early haulers were known as “scavengers” because they attempted to recover value from another’s discards.

The term “refuse” was developed in the 1920s as an umbrella term to avoid having to say, “garbage/rubbish/trash.” Not unlike how the term “minorities” developed to avoid saying, “Mexicans, Africans, Armenians, etc.”

The term solid waste was invented in the 1960s to again replace GRT+R. Somebody must think they were doing the world a favor by creating a new term. The term “affected classes” was invented in the 1970s to describe all the different classifications that were included in employment discrimination laws; instead of saying “race, color, religion, sex, physical handicap, religion, ….” you would just say “affected classes;” we all like short-cuts.

Historically waste was a verb, not a noun, and we have created a lot of problems by considering many of the GRTR materials as wastes. Are source-separated organics ready to rot and destined for the compost yard a “waste?” Waste haulers hide behind the solid waste and garbage terms to say, “only us can haul this stuff;” the courts will finally define the line between restricted and open-market materials.

Any ideas on the errors in this little history would be helpful; I teach this stuff in 4R basic training classes and can always be corrected.


It makes no sense to charge producers for recycling and reward them for wasting.

But the challenge is to structure any new policy so that it does not act to fiscally entrench disposal systems. The new charges to producers would likely amount to a significant new infusion of resources to operators of landfills and incinerators, private and public. Some of this cash could be counted as “cost recovery” but not all (imagine the book keeping to reconcile this with fees for everyone else). 

It might make more sense for charges that are  imposed on producers to be directed into a separate fund, not the disposal function. Likely the disposal facilities that are in place now were built to accommodate the waste that is going to come through the pipeline at current rates. The costs of these facilities are mainly fixed costs. 

Maybe a good use of the windfall trash penalties from producers might be an aggressive publicly sponsored advertising campaign about the disposal of products and packaging in the trash.


One of my heroes is former Sen. Philip Hart, lonely liberal lion of the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1976, but who used to say, especially as he got on in years, that sometimes he gets tired of marching boldly into the sunset and he just wants to pass a good bill.

Could I suggest that we need to ask ourselves whether in our short time on earth we want to consume ourselves with endless recitations of theoretical abstractions or, instead, focus on the realities of the facts-on-the-ground.

Yes, our common goal is to convince producers to design packages for sustainability. However, to date, EPR has not shown itself anywhere in the U.S or Canada as capable of achieving it in the real world because it harbors the same shortcoming as do community-run programs.

The reason is in large part that we currently do not have the political power to push multifaceted design changes to send convincing price signals through EPR provisos to alter designs.

One of the EPR strategies to move markets is price signals, but the average level of fees that we can impose on packaging are benchmarked against average collection costs, and as such are a minor fraction of the monetary value that producers attach to an eyeball attracting, recycling maddening, package. To compound the problem, the producer councils put in charge of the process will NEVER EVER NEVER impose the multiple surcharge on egregious package designs like PVC bottles that might sometimes overcome the fact that average EPR levies are flea bites. Nowhere that I have yet to hear about have EPR programs shown themselves capable of imposing the “significant multiples” that Dick Lilly also references as necessary to achieve the intended objective – not that EPR is per se a bad idea, but because neither EPR nor community run programs have sufficient political power to impose fees (EPR) or bans (community run) that really bite.

On the other hand, in the first half of the 1990s before EPR, we achieved many changes such as subbing EVOH for PVC liners in PP caps on PET bottles, effectively eliminating PVC bottles for most applications, etc., through threats of bans, which was only achieved, not because EPR is a bad idea (it’s a fine concept), but because in its heyday recycling was hot, conferring a modicum of political power on our cause that we no longer possess.

The other tool EPR hopes to use to incentivize design changes is performance standards such as recovery rates, which can only be enforced, outside deposit items, through waste composition studies. Anyone conversant in these statistics involved and who has actually performed the exercise understands that there is not enough money in Fort Knox to achieve, each year, the necessarily narrow margin of error by brand.

If these criticisms are not right, where is the success story of a significant design change that EPR achieved that would not have occurred absent EPR? Just repeating the claim over and over that it can achieve those changes does not make it so until valid case studies can be put forward to sustain them.

Until we have something concrete to talk about, I would humbly like to suggest that we call a surcease to these endless series of articles to precisely the same point that add nothing to the sum of human knowledge, and on the internecine acerbic jabs between producer and community advocates.

For we really need to focus our energies on acquiring what is missing from whichever persuasion one prefers, EPR or community run (and I’m agnostic), in order to, together, increase our political power. The ban-the-bag movement adumbrates one practical way to build political power and move forward, and I suggest we focus on what we can see around us that actually works.

For myself, like Bill, I’m 68 now, and, more-so, like Phil Hart, I’m thinking that I’d like to pass a good bill rather than march again, smartly but empty handed, into the sunset.


You’re quite right.  A separate fund with no money going to haulers or landfill or incinerator operators is exactly what I have proposed since floated the idea at a sustainable packaging conference last spring. The money would be distributed as grants for capital improvements to MRFs and reclaimer facilities and to local governments and others for promotion and public education. This charge or assessment structure needs to be written into EPR laws. It isn’t now.


Interesting??  There needs to be some clarification then.

As I understand it, full EPR requires producers to pay for 100% of collection and processing of what they produce, and making them responsible for proper reuse, recycling, composting, or disposing of their end products.

This would, apparently, inspire producers to use quality materials that are easy to reuse to make new products, thereby reducing their disposal costs and/or need for virgin materials.

It is way over due for producers to pay their own way!!

Most are enjoying the lack of rules in Ontario.  If their packaging goes through the Blue Box producers are only required to pay “up to 50%” of diversion costs (depending on the material) all of us taxpayers pay the rest (even if we don’t buy their products!!) As if that’s not bad enough, producers pay nothing if their products go directly to the dump – all taxpayers pay 100% of these costs??  CRAZY, eh!  Producers are very clever with their ability to create new, cheap packaging that hasn’t yet been designated as a Blue Box item.  This allows them more time to reap the financial subsidy from all taxpayers.  Municipalities are trying hard to keep up with adding new items to the Blue Box in hopes of getting producers to pay something to help finance the collection and diversion of their products.  Of course then municipalities struggle to find markets for that junk – which should be the producers job!!

I keep hoping to see some sensible changes, but those lobbying for the producers are doing an amazing job to keep government officials in line 🙁

Ontario urgently needs mandatory EPR programs, which include Deposit/Returns, and other incentives.