The modern capitalist and consumer society produces imaginable quantities of waste. It would be beneficial for both human and environmental health to reduce current levels of waste production. One way this can happen is for local and state governments to implement policies which require manufacturers to take back the materials they sell. Under most current systems waste flows as follows:
natural environment (raw materials) => resource excavator/mining company => materials processor => manufacturer => wholesaler => retailer => consumer => waste handler => treatment plant/ landfill/foreign country => natural environment (waste)
This system incentivizes the overproduction and overconsumption of wasteful products and the misuse of natural resources. Space is actually running out in terms of where new waste can be placed, and developed countries commonly export their waste to developing nations, where crude and often hazardous recycling practices are implemented.
There are few if any incentives within the system that encourage manufacturers to reduce their waste production; once their waste-heavy products move along the unidirectional waste stream (detailed above) the waste becomes someone else’s concern. Instead, incentives exist to maximize waste production, which equates to greater product sales and higher earnings. This is perpetuated by the seemingly free flow of natural resources provided by mining companies and raw materials manufacturers who neither incur nor pass along the costs of the environmental impacts produced by their operations.
The unidirectional waste flow needs to be turned into a closed-loop system in which manufacturers are held accountable for the products that they create and sell. This will force manufacturers to account for the full life-cycle of their products, packaging included, in terms of disposability, reusability, and recyclability.
Restructuring of this type will have two main implications.
- Manufacturers will steadily replace disposable products with more durable, sustainable, and lasting alternatives
- Mining companies (petroleum, natural gas, metals, etc.) will be impacted because the demand for their products will decline
Manufacturer responsibility represents just one step in addressing the enormous and increasing waste stream that plagues modern society, Earth, and future generations. There are other pieces to the puzzle, such as citizen responsibility, which I will address later. I am not singling-out manufacturers, but they are a key component of the waste cycle which the free market has failed to address. The free market has allowed them to transfer external environmental costs along the consumption line. This has created a need for waste treatment companies, which are often directly and indirectly subsidized by municipalities (tax dollars=citizens). But such companies are under extreme duress and cannot indefinitely maintain their services, which suggests that current systems need to be changed.
The free market has also allowed the free and uninhibited plundering of natural resources. Mountain tops, potable water supplies, oceans, desserts, and other natural phenomena have all been destroyed or put at risk for the constant, growing, and continuously stressed excavation of natural resources. The long-term effects of such actions are not accounted for within the free market—they are financial freebies. But the lasting environmental impacts are quite costly in other terms, and will eventually be felt in an economic terms as well. Once a mountaintop is mined, it cannot be mined again. The same is true for deep-see drilling or hydro-fracking. The natural resources excavated by such activities are finite—it would take millions of years for the earth’s natural systems to replenish them, if of course such natural systems have not been completely destroyed.
Manufacturer take-back schemes unique to electronic devices are currently in place within many states and countries. Similar schemes can be expanded to cover all products within the waste stream. The sheer number of distinct consumer products might require that responsibility be assigned to material manufacturer type (i.e. plastics manufacturers) rather than specific brand name manufacturers, perhaps simplifying processes. Regardless of the minute and likely complex details that would be required of such a system, the basics are clear. Mining, processing, and manufacturing companies—the groups at the top of the waste production and supply stream—would be required to take their products back once citizens (aka consumers) no longer want them. This would incentivize such groups to factor the costs of waste treatment into their operating expenses, and to develop more sustainable products which produce less waste.
MESSAGE TO CITIZENS & POLICYMAKERS: Develop new and extend existing take-back schemes to cover all products.