To help the environment, an item’s retail price should include the cost of getting rid of it eventually.
By Michael Boardman
Portland Press Herald op-ed
Our global society is plagued with uncountable, rather complex problems, including overpopulation, environmental destruction and a host of social issues. We live in a world where wealth, access to resources and corporate interests have created a state of disequilibrium in people’s relationships with each other and with the environment.
While this has happened through small steps, I believe that the way back to equilibrium is also made of many small steps. One such small step is aimed at sustainably managing our consumption of the Earth’s natural resources. This will require commitment to altering the present economic system.
As a specific case, manufacturers of products that are potentially harmful to people and the environment are allowed to externalize many of the costs of making these products.
This means that the true price of the product is not reflected in the retail price; someone else paid for part of that product in some form, such as the impact on health, equality and justice.
For example, we all breathe, so air pollution affects all of us. However, neither the producers nor the consumers of automobiles cover the true cost (environmental destruction, health risks) of running a car.
Helping ensure sustainability involves internalizing external costs. A way to achieve this is through product stewardship.
The concept of stewardship is an old one. According to Merriam-Webster.com, the term dates to the 15th century and is defined as “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care <stewardship of natural resources>.” Basically, it means to take good care of something.
In the context of modern times, extended producer responsibility laws create stewardship programs. We need to start taking better care of our world and the people in it. We must become better stewards of the Earth and society if we want to live healthy, happy lives and ensure the same for our children.
The term “stewardship” has been applied to many areas, including the environment, the economy, nuclear stockpiles and consumer products.
My focus is on consumer product stewardship because Americans produce more waste than any other country, over half of which is residential garbage.
Some of this garbage is in the form of household hazardous waste and some in the form of bulky items, such as chairs, mattresses and carpeting. Carpeting and mattresses are often made with synthetic materials, like plastics, and are poisonous to the environment if disposed of improperly.
The city of Portland runs a Bulky Item Collection Program, which can be accessed by any residence that receives weekly service from Portland’s trash and recycling crews. However, I see several problems with the program:
• First, the city runs it, which means that everyone who pays city taxes contributes to this service, even if they don’t use it.
• Second, the removal of items weighing more than 30 pounds costs an additional $40 per item.
• Third, all items under 30 pounds that fit in a city of Portland garbage bag are ineligible for this service.
Through stewardship programs, these limitations can become old news because the cost for collection and processing of items can be added to the price tag of new products. This means that the consumer directly pays in advance for the item’s later collection, which saves money for both the city and the taxpayer. Stewardship programs would require manufacturers to create and manage reclamation sites and recycling or disposal programs.
Maine is becoming a leader in extended producer responsibility laws, and our country is a leader in ingenuity.
It seems reasonable to me that this combination can be exploited to create a system of stewardship programs incorporating many problematic products.
With enough momentum, extended producer responsibility laws could lead to other beneficial environmental policies and start us on a path back toward equilibrium.
I believe that product stewardship is a simple method by which we can help ensure a healthy and happy future.
About the Author: Michael Boardman is a resident of Portland.