The Missing Link in Climate Change: Product Policy


Although images of giant coal-fired smokestacks and automobile tailpipes characterize greenhouse gas scenarios, a new report proposes a different way of thinking about it – product policy.  Products and packaging contribute 44% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and reduction plans are more likely to succeed if extended producer responsibility (EPR) is made a cornerstone of commerce and environmental policy, the report says.

The report comes from the Product Policy Institute (PPI).  “Conventional economic sector-based greenhouse gas accounting misses the impacts of products and packaging,” says Bill Sheehan, PPI Executive Director. “Now we know that reducing waste offers the largest opportunity to combat global warming.”

Extended producer responsibility laws that make producers responsible for their products at the end of life, he adds, would stimulate green design. “Green chemistry is good too.”

The report was authored for PPI by Dr. Joshuah Stolaroff, a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow for U.S. EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.  In the report he says that products do not play an obvious role in the climate change debate because most “products do not emit greenhouse gas directly…On the other hand, if we view the impacts of products more completely, across the life cycle of extracting raw materials, processing, manufacturing, transporting, using, and disposing of products, a different picture emerges.”

EPA reached a similar conclusion with a recent report, “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices.”  Doubling the recycling of construction and demolition debris would result in an emissions savings of 150 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent every year, while reducing product packaging by half could reduce CO2 equivalent emissions around 100 million tons per year.

The link is invisible in part because lack of producer responsibility laws and systems dumps the landfill or recycling burden on local governments. Sego Jackson of Everett, Washington, planner for Snohomish County Solid Waste Management Division and a veteran of the Washington State climate change advisory and action teams, says “we have to go upstream – that’s the essence of what PPI and EPA are saying.” Local and state greenhouse gas inventories, Jackson says, only ask, for example, whether a land-disposed computer emits a gas like methane. Although the answer is no, the entire process leading to its final disposal contributed significantly to greenhouse gases.

States are taking the lead in fashioning extended producer responsibility laws beginning with electronic waste take-back, but broader framework laws are under consideration in several states.

PPI’s Sheehan says an EPR system could benefit the U.S. economy.  “Closed loop, cradle-to-cradle cycling means more jobs. Energy efficiency inventiveness means global competitiveness in the crunch to come.”

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