Local government leaders are backing a legislative effort that calls on product manufacturers to plan for the complete life cycle of their creations.

Like the mythical Greek character Sisyphus, who is forced to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity only to watch if fall back down, local government has made a Herculean effort to divert half the waste stream through recycling, only to see the amount of garbage sent to their landfills increase.

Twenty years ago, AB 939 put the onus on local government to reduce landfill by 50 percent by 2000 and imposed a fine of $10,000 per day for noncompliance. Cities and counties, at great cost, vigilantly put into place recycling, education and reuse campaigns.

Some of that effort paid off, according to the California Dept. of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Diversion from landfills has increased seven-fold since 1989 when 42.4 million tons of stuff a year was buried. However, despite waste management’s collective 47 percent alternative disposal effort, in 2003, 40,276 tons was still going to waste.

The reason this story doesn’t have a happy ending is that consumption has increased, explained Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council. She estimated that 75 percent of this “buried treasure” is product and packaging waste that could have been avoided – or planned for easy reincarnation – if it were designed properly during the manufacturing stage.

The solution, according to Sanborn, is to start at the source with extended producer responsibility (EPR) or product stewardship. “EPR places primary responsibility with producers and manufacturers, because only they can change product design and incorporate recycling costs into the price of the products,” Sanborn said.

That holistic approach would allow consumers to make more informed choices about the total impact of their purchases.

Calaveras County Supervisor Steve Wilensky called the precarious financial position of local government between a garbage truck and an overflowing dump “a moment of crisis.”

Calaveras County is struggling with an imminent need for another cell in its landfill that will cost millions of dollars. “We are facing the Faustian choice of whether to put money into safety issues such as plowing the roads or dealing with garbage. There is no right decision,” Wilensky said.

Calaveras supervisors have considered everything from raising taxes and garbage rates to dumping fees. However, when they added a $25 recovery charge to “white garbage” such as dishwashers and ovens, people simply dumped them in a rural spot and then the county spent even more money to retrieve the environmental hazards.

Every time the state bans a material, cities and counties have to scramble to figure out how to isolate and dispose of the material, whether it is mercury or batteries.

Santa Clara County spent $2.9 million in 2008 to manage the hazardous waste collected from just 5 percent of its households, according to Rob D’Arcy, Santa Clara County hazardous materials program manager.

Sanborn would like to stop putting the burden on local government. “No more bans without plans,” she quipped at a recent Sacramento Sustainability Forum.

“It is not a question of the environment or profit, you can have both if you plan correctly,” Sanborn said. “Local government can’t and shouldn’t raise taxes and garbage rates enough to deal with all the disposal needs.”

A total of 75 jurisdictions have passed resolutions supporting product stewardship. Some tried to influence manufacturers with their wallets by establishing preferences for companies with take-back provisions in purchasing contracts. Others, including Central Contra Costa County Solid Waste Authority, called on legislators to require producer responsibility.

The only way to encourage manufacturers to follow the lead set in many other countries who effectively include plans for – and the cost of – recycling into the sales price is to require it by law. “That would create a level playing field,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn also predicts that requiring recycling and cradle-to-cradle planning for reusing materials would create a more competitive and cheaper recycling industry.

The alternative, Sanborn warns, is not viable – higher taxes and higher garbage collection rates.

The League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties have both worked with Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (D, Glendale) to craft that would require end-of-life planning in production. The bill AB283, died in committee last year, but Chesbro Chief Consultant on the Environmental and Safety Committee said the Assemblyman plans to introduce a new Product Stewardship Act of 2010 that would cover only a few specific products to show that the concept can work.

The former Humboldt County supervisor and Arcata City councilman is no stranger to garbage issues. He served on the California Integrated Waste Management Board and was the founder of the Arcata Community Recycling Center in the early ‘70s.

Today, he chairs the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxics Committee.
Another component necessary to make product life cycle planning more viable, according to Sanborn, is streamlining siting of recycling centers. In addition to reducing costs of shipping the materials overseas to be recycled in less than environmentally and humane circumstances, it would create local jobs.

JT Long can be reached at jtlongandco@gmail.com