What is the role of government in product stewardship? This question was posed to me as one of five panelists on yesterday’s Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) webinar. Many government officials and recycling professionals listened in, and other panelists included:
According to PSI’s invitation, the purpose of the webinar discussion was to discern, “…whether key [product stewardship] program principles, such as transparency and accountability, are best attained through voluntary, mandatory, or hybrid programs that encompass elements from both approaches.”
During the webinar, I stressed that it is important to not lump all of private industry together when considering how to regulate the environmental impact of products in the marketplace. Government leaders and other key stakeholders should look at what each individual industry is doing and not take a one-size-fits-all approach.
As we know, many states and cities are feeling the budget pinch, and taxpayer money has to be carefully prioritized to protect public health and safety. The bigger the threat, the greater need for government.
Certainly, hazardous products require government oversight in order to protect consumers from injury. As the ACA’s Alison Keane noted, paint is the top household hazardous waste product. That is why the ACA founded “PaintCare,” a non-profit program to manage the reuse, recycling and proposal disposal of unused paint. This industry-support effort is in conjunction with government oversight initiatives that include a per-can assessment fee, convenient paint collection and a management system run by manufacturers.
However, a telephone directory does not present the safety hazards that paint can. And when it comes to the print Yellow Pages, we know that voluntary self-regulation through industry-led efforts works best for consumers, small businesses, and most importantly, taxpayers.
Our industry has been proactive in reducing the carbon footprint of our products and has generated significant results. Last year, we re-launched our successful, industry-funded consumer website, www.YellowPagesOptOut.com. The site, which is provided at no cost to consumers or cities, enables residents and local businesses to choose which directories they receive or stop delivery altogether. The recycling rate for print directories is high and the impact of phone books on the municipal waste stream is miniscule. Moreover, over the past five years, our industry has undergone a 50% reduction of paper use for directory production.
Another factor is whether government and an industry are aligned in their goals. For our industry, we have a common desire with government to reduce the number of unwanted directories. Publishers do not want to incur the cost of printing and delivering a product to a household that does not intend to use it. Local government wants to reduce unwanted directory deliveries but often have competing budgetary demands. So, the industry offers a free solution: a website where consumers can opt-out of phone directory delivery.
Mr. Lifset included in one of his presentation slides that there is, “No sound science to support effectiveness of voluntary approaches to environmental policy,” and that the, “Majority of voluntary schemes collect little or no data… no data, no evidence!” I disagree. For one, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) provides us with credible data on the success of our efforts. Back in 2009, the EPA determined that directories made up three-tenths of one percent of the of discarded paper & paperboard products in the municipal waste stream. Now, however, the EPA has determined that phone directories are such a small part of the municipal waste stream that they no longer see a need to track the product separately.
Mr. Martin noted that Australia had a 77.7% recovery rate for newsprint in 2011. That is very common to the recycling rate for newsprint in the U.S. – which includes telephone directories – of 71.6%. Whether or not the Australian rate includes telephone directories is secondary to the larger point of the commonness and success in paper recycling globally.
While our industry continues to responsibly self-regulate the production, distribution and disposal of our products, we believe that government can play an important role in communicating solutions and options to the public. I shared with the webinar listeners an overview of the collaborative press releases that our industry has issued with state and local lawmakers across the country, several of whom are noted as strong advocates of the environment.
I’m glad that our industry had this opportunity to share our positive story with interested parties on the PSI webinar, and I look forward to continued dialogue.