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Between the Lines: Whose Trash?

Springfield supports Enhanced Producer Responsibility legislation.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Springfield has joined Holyoke in signaling its support of a new approach to trash management, one that shifts the burden of dealing with hard-to-recycle trash from municipalities (and taxpayers) to the manufacturers that make the products and packaging in the first place.

Last week, the City Council approved a resolution supporting Enhanced Producer Responsibility, or EPR, legislation. EPR, part of a larger movement to reduce the amount of trash heading to landfills, is defined in the resolution as "an environmental policy approach in which producers accept responsibility for the end-of-life management of their products. ... [W]hen producers are responsible for ensuring their products are reused or recycled, there is an incentive to design products that are more durable, easier to repair, recycle, and are less toxic."

The resolution was filed by Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and is cosponsored by John Lysak, Clodo Concepcion, Jimmy Ferrera and Jose Tosado.

Limited EPR laws already exists in numerous states, while bottle bills such as Massachusetts'—which require beverage companies to provide collection sites for empty bottles and to recycle them—are the most common. Massachusetts also has a similar program for products that contain mercury, such as thermostats and thermometers. A bill pending at the Statehouse would mandate that manufacturers take responsibility for discarded electronics— also known as "e-waste"—such as televisions and computers.

Supporters of the EPR approach say it relieves overstrained municipalities of the responsibility for handling hard-to-recycle, often hazardous materials, instead forcing manufacturers to take on the burden—and, it's hoped, inspiring them to be more thoughtful about the manufacturing and packaging decisions they make in the future.

In addition, the resolution urges the Legislature to pass "framework" EPR legislation that would authorize state officials to add new product categories to the program, rather than wait for the passage of individual laws addressing individual products, and to pass the "e-waste" bill that's currently before the House Committee on Rules.

Resolutions are symbolic in nature, creating no new city ordinances. But they send a public message of support, as expressed in the Springfield resolution: "The Springfield City Council serves notice to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and to the manufacturers and distributors of products and packaging sold in our jurisdiction, that it supports the transfer of responsibility for the costs of managing products at end-of-life to producers (brand owners and first importers), under oversight of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection." It also calls for City Hall to "include preferential producer take-back language in purchasing contracts where feasible."

Environmental groups such as Clean Water Action are eager to see more communities pass EPR resolutions; while they might be symbolic gestures at this point, the more municipalities pass them, the weightier those gestures become, and, it's hoped, the more likely they are to lead to the next step: real policy. There have been signs of support on the state level, too. "[T]he Patrick-Murray Administration is committed to an aggressive agenda of recycling and waste reduction that gives cities and towns assistance to expand and improve their recycling efforts and requires greater responsibility from manufacturers for products—ranging from water bottles to televisions—that end up in our waste stream," the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs announced in December.

As with many other "green" initiatives, there will be pushback from business interests—in this case, manufacturers who are not eager to take on additional costs. In February, when the Holyoke City Council passed its EPR resolution, dissenting councilors said they worried it would be seen as unfriendly to businesses—a worry that resonates in cities like Holyoke and Springfield that continue to struggle with the fallout from the massive job loss brought by deindustrialization.

But backers hope measures like EPR policies will help bring a new kind of job to their communities. "Even if it's with small, symbolic steps like this resolution, we need to start signaling to the state and the other investors who are watching ... that we're ready to think green, act green, that we're going to be welcoming all sorts of green investment," said Rebecca Lisi, the Holyoke councilor who sponsored that city's resolution.

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