Scott Cassel is a man with a vision.
The Founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute sees a world where companies share in the responsibility for what happens to products—especially those that contain toxins or are difficult to recycle—when we throw them away.
For close to two decades, the institute has worked with governments, businesses and recyclers to ensure that caring for the environment isn’t solely on the shoulders of individual people.
While what you toss in the trash or recycling bin will always matter, Cassel says that companies can do more.
Currently, Metro Council is working with agencies statewide to plan for Oregon’s recycling future—and that could mean a future where companies play a role in managing the plastics and packaging they produce.
Cassel sat down recently with Metro staff to share what he knows about producer responsibility, answer some questions and riff on his harmonia.
How do you explain product stewardship to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
Product stewardship in Oregon
Today, more than 115 producer responsibility laws exist in 34 states. Check out what products are covered here in ours.
Oregon’s bottle bill, passed in 1971, was the first of its kind in the nation. Since then, the bill has expanded to recycle most kinds of beverage containers. It also added BottleDrop centers.
Oregon’s newest product stewardship law requires drug companies to create a way for people to safely dispose of their unused medications.
Many electronic devices are full of nasty stuff like lead, mercury, beryllium and cadmium. Electronics accepted under Oregon E-Cycles program are recycled for free.
For 20 years, MetroPaint has redirected millions of gallons of left over paint from landfills and remade them into fresh, new colors that are sold around the region.
Product stewardship is a way to make it easy, convenient for each consumer to bring those products [that they no longer need or use] to a location—it could be a pharmacy for their old medications, it could be to a retail store or a Metro depot or another location—where it is just easy for them to bring back the products.
And once those are taken back, they are either disposed of safely or they are returned back into the circular economy and made into new products.
And products are paid for by the producers themselves, they are managed by the producers. So these systems take the burden away from government and tax payers.
When it comes to throwing away the stuff we buy, many folks are familiar with the concept “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Where does product stewardship fit into this and why should people care?
Well it’s the producers who are making these products in the first place. And the governments have to figure out a way to manage and pay for them.
People are confused about the recycling system right now. And if you go town to town or region to region, it’s going to be different in every state. It’s all fragmented and there’s added cost. People understand that waste is a problem. And so, they want to reduce. They don’t know how. They want to reuse. They want to recycle.
These extended producer responsibility systems (or product stewardship systems as they’re often called) set up systems that are very clear for the consumers.
Local government has a role in terms of educating the consumers and providing a collection service. State government provides oversight for the programs that the producers themselves deliver.
And then the producers fund and manage those programs.
Retailers have a role as well—to voluntarily collect. For example, the pharmaceutical program or the paint program, those things are being collected at the retail locations— and it gets people in the store. And people want to buy things. So there is an incentive for everyone.
What advice do you have for local governments that want to put product stewardship programs into place?
They can provide a collection service. Many consumers are used to going to locations where government officials are collecting.
And I think that the producers who put those products on the market just take it for granted that governments are going to be there to manage their products. They sell them. They’re done with them, and away they go to the next product that they’re making.
But governments are the ones who are collecting these.
And the local government has that role to let the consumer know that things like paint should be managed in an appropriate way. It shouldn’t be poured down the drain. It shouldn’t be put into the garbage. And it can be brought to a collection facility—whether that’s government or a retail location. And that paint is turned back into another product.
Metro has one of the best paint recycling facilities in the country. It’s creating jobs. It creates economic development. And it’s returning that material into what we call the circular economy. So, all that is being done by a local government here. But they need to be overseen by a state agency.
One of the biggest challenges in recycling right now is the amount of packaging that isn’t recyclable. Can product stewardship programs address this ever evolving problem?
These programs exist all over the world actually. They’ve been in existence over 35 years all across Europe. They exist all across Canada— in multiple providences—for over 15 years. So we know these systems work—these extended producer responsibility systems—for packaging and for printed paper.
What would take place here—the change for Oregon or any other state—would be that the producers would have a much larger role. And those roles can vary depending on the type of system.
But the producers would end up paying for recycling. The producers themselves would charge each of the different producers that contribute into the system—because there are so many different products. There’s flexible packaging, there’s plastics, there’s paper, there’s aluminum, there’s other metals.
Each of the companies would pay into a system that would have different fees based on how environmental the packages are that they put on the market.