Problem: Our “Take, Make, Waste” Economy

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Every year, Americans throw away the equivalent of 50 Great Pyramids worth of “trash.” The products and packaging that we discard represent staggering amounts of natural resources, including oil and other energy sources required to manufacture products from virgin materials. The health impacts of toxic chemicals used in everyday products threaten our health and the environment, and there is a disproportionate impact on low-income communities from the improper management of these materials.

Our “throw-away” society did not happen by accident.  Policy decisions over the last century – by government and industry – have led to today’s unsustainable economy.

Today’s “Cradle-to-Grave – Take, Make, Waste” system

The way we currently design, produce, use and dispose of most of our products and packaging is through a linear “cradle to grave” system – what Story of Stuff Creator, Annie Leonard, refers to as the “Take, Make, Waste” system of industrial production and consumption.  We all know this model:

  • Extraction industries dig up, cut down or drill out natural resources.
  • Manufacturers process these natural resources into products and packaging.
  • Retailers sell the products.
  • Consumers buy the products in their packaging.  When we’re finished with them, we predominantly put these materials – and the natural resources they represent – into the trash.
  • Through our tax dollars, we then pay to have our town government contract with waste haulers to send our unwanted products and packaging to a landfill or waste incinerator.  Every year, Americans send 165 million tons worth of materials to landfills and incinerators, and that figure is greatly dwarfed by all the natural resources and fuel used to make those products from virgin materials.  For example, it takes 98 tons of materials to make 1 ton of paper, and even though paper is easily recycled, Americans send over 26 million tons of paper to landfills and incinerators each year.

Rising waste & stagnant recycling rates

Americans believe that we recycle many more materials than we did 40 years ago, before the advent of municipal recycling programs. This is a true statement. What’s also true is that we throw away much, more than we did back then.

  • In 1960, US citizens disposed of 2.7 pounds of trash per person each day.
  • Today, that figure has nearly doubled – up to 4.5 pounds of trash per person every day.
  • While recycling rates increased dramatically during the 1990s (from 16% in 1990 to 29% in 2000), they have stagnated at around 34% for much of the past decade.

A hundred years ago, we predominantly discarded food scraps and coal ash.  Most products were made from natural materials like paper, cloth, leather, metal and wood and most were reused or recycled at the end of their useful life.  Today, products and packaging make up 71% of all household trash, and 30% of the all the materials we throw away are packaging.

Toxic by design

Because manufacturers bear no responsibility for their products at end of their useful life, there is continuing growth in both the volume and the toxicity of products and packaging designed for disposal.  Products are increasingly designed with toxic materials, which pose health threats to workers, wildlife and to all of us – either through direct exposure to dangerous chemicals through inhalation or absorption in our homes, schools and office buildings, or by indirect exposure through ingesting or inhaling pollutants which have migrated out of products into the environment and the food chain.

Local governments unable to fix the problem

At the back end of the “Take, Make, Waste” system, cash-strapped local governments – who currently hold the responsibility for managing society’s waste – have no ability to influence the design of products or the capital to invest in real solutions to reuse and recycle the valuable materials that make up products and packaging.

Throwing jobs away in the garbage

Another way to look at the problem is on through an economic development lens.  Along with our tossing billions of dollars of quality materials into the garbage, we are also throwing away millions of American jobs.  A recent report by the Tellus Institute estimates that the United States can grow 1.5 million new jobs by increasing our nation’s recycling rate from 34% to 75%, a rate that has been achieved by several European countries with robust EPR initiatives.

Waste of energy: impacts on climate change

In addition, a 2009 white paper commissioned by PPI showed that products and packaging account for 44% of US greenhouse gas impacts – more than heating and cooling of buildings, local passenger transportation, or food production.  Since the majority of a product’s energy footprint is in the extraction and production phases, recycling can significantly lower the GHG emissions associated with a given product by substituting recycled materials for energy-intensive virgin resources

Solution: Extended Producer Responsibility: from “Cradle-to-Grave” to “Cradle-to-Cradle.”

The evidence from analyzing mature extended producer responsibility (EPR) systems demonstrates that EPR is a transformative policy that shifts our “Take, Make, Waste” cradle-to-grave production and consumption system into a more sustainable cradle-to-cradle system – dramatically reducing waste and the need for virgin natural resources, reducing toxic pollution and energy use, saving taxpayers money and creating  jobs and local economic development.  Learn more about the solution.