I made the mistake of drinking strong coffee to keep awake during class tonight. I couldn’t sleep, so in my insomnia, I wrote this entry for President-Elect Obama’s Citizen Briefing Book. I am not really sure why, since it is not even my top environmental issue, nor even my top political issue, but go vote it to the top if you like it!

Waste rarely appears in nature. Nearly every output from one biological process is the input to another, creating an extraordinarily complex, dynamically balanced, self-regulating, closed-loop system. By contrast, human industrial production system is largely linear, extracting natural resources from the earth, manufacturing a product (often with planned obsolecence in mind) that will most likely end up buried in a landfill within a short period of time, most often preceded in that ultimate fate by its too often non-biodegradable packaging, both potentially leaching hazardous materials into our water supplies. Furthermore, the majority of resources extracted in a typical manufacturing process end up as waste by-products during production, creating even more landfill waste or mining or manufacturing slurry, sludge, or other effluent. While recycling theoretically closes this loop, as currently implemented in this country, it is added on as an afterthought, and is often not economically viable, and certainly not effective, with less than 2% of the waste stream actually being recycled.

The least intrusive system intervention to remediate this wasteful production system and reduce the environmental burden posed by its linear nature is to put the onus of disposal on the product manufacturer. If the manufacturer of a product must bear ultimate financial responsibility for its disposition, it will immediately have the incentive to:

  1. Make the product as durable, upgradeable, & long-lived as possible so that it may remain in service without need for disposal.
  2. Design the product for maximum remanufacturability/recyclability, so that it will be easy to refurbish or remake into a new product through remanufacturing or total recycling.
  3. Design the product and its packaging to be biodegradable to avoid the need for special disposal.
  4. Reduce the use of toxic or hazardous materials in the product to avoid the cost of proper disposal under appropriate environmental regulations.

Making manufacturers fully responsible for their creations from cradle-to-grave (or, if they choose, from cradle-to-cradle) prevents them from externalizing the environmental and societal costs of product disposal, and therefore represents the most efficient, least economically burdensome formula for reducing most types of pollution. It also makes sense from a systems design perspective, since the creatorof a product will naturally have the most knowledge about it and be in the best position to oversee its lifecycle. Please work to phase-in extended producer responsibility. This single, sweeping reform would put our society on a path to sustainable production without the need for byzantine micro-managing environmental regulation.

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