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The Green Life: Tackling Toxic Trash

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February 03, 2010

Tackling Toxic Trash

Electronics recycling The bad news is that Americans are tossing more trash than ever -- up from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960 to 4.5 pounds in 2008, according to the EPA. About 75 percent of it is stuff that may contain plastics, acids, heavy metals, and petroleum byproducts. Though most landfills have designated drop-off days for things like used batteries, fluorescent lights, and microwaves, few people take advantage of that. California alone spends $500 million per year trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep toxic waste out of its landfills.  

The good news is that cash-strapped counties and states have had enough. Now, product stewardship, the idea that manufacturers, not taxpayers, should be responsible for the proper disposal of products, is gaining traction.  Also known as “extended producer responsibility” and “responsible recycling,” it has long been in place in Europe, Canada, Japan, and South Korea. In the U.S., 19 states have passed “take-back” laws requiring producers to collect and recycle household electronics. Maine has taken the lead with five byproduct stewardship laws. Producers there must take back mercury-containing thermostats, auto-switches, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and, starting in 2011, mercury lamps. Other states are ramping up their efforts including Minnesota and California, where several similar bills have been introduced.

Most manufacturers, not surprisingly, oppose these new laws, but advocates say product stewardship will encourage them to design less toxic products and reduce packaging waste. While prices may go up for consumers, taxpayers would no longer have to subsidize waste disposal for things they didn’t buy. And it’s good for the economy: Having to do something with all that garbage actually creates jobs.

--Wendy Becktold

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