To Transform the Plastic Crisis: Apply Fees on Landfills and Single-Use Packaging
(This is part of the series for 7 Main Areas of Focus to Transform the Plastic Crisis)
Even with reduced plastic production and alternatives — there are still many opportunities to improve waste generation and how plastics are treated after use. This need is not just for single use plastics but also for plastics that are found in everyday items. It is very easy for municipalities, businesses, and consumers to throw “away” a product with plastic directly in the “waste” bin because it’s not recyclable, and because it’s “free.” This is especially accepted in our western cultures as the default behavior.
In contrast, in many cultures, there is much use that is obtained from the thrown away product either by reusing or repurposing. For the west, this type of mindset change is more likely to occur quicker, with a top-down change through legislation.
Landfill Taxes to divert waste from Landfills and encourage recycling
Many countries and states already have taxes for creating plastic waste — similar to the carbon tax. While taxing landfills incentivizes cities and waste management to reduce the plastic volume being dumped and lost forever, taxing the production side incentivizes manufacturers to use less packaging as well as holding them accountable for discarding the plastic packaging.
There is good evidence that this type of approach works — Europe is a leading example for the developed world. Finland for example has been very successful with their tax levies since 1996. Of course it poses different challenges in the developing world. To look at one of the most extreme cases — Germany has no landfill tax, instead it has a complete ban on landfills since 2005. This is enabled through the infrastructure that has been built to allow for ground-breaking recycling processes from separation at the source to reselling recycled materials. And this infrastructure was built through fees collected from the producers/manufacturers of the packaging materials since 1991 — as by law they have been responsible for the collection of packaging.
Through the levies governments are able to both incentivize alternative methods to deal with “waste” as well as set diversion targets for communities.
Taxing for landfill is also a way to incentivize cities to use existing capabilities and capacities. There are plenty of cities across the US where even though a local recycling facility exists to recycle certain types of plastics, they are not. Many municipalities in the US don’t even have curbside recycling available. It’s mostly because it’s too costly for the city to contract the recycling facility to process 3 different types of recyclables.
From the taxes earned governments and cities can invest in improving the infrastructure. In Canada for instance Quebec built their recycling infrastructure through increased landfill levies between 2010–2015.
Landfills are not just a hazard to the environment because it produces methane that is between 20–25 times more damaging than carbon to the environment, they are also a threat to human health. In many communities the leachate from landfills were studied and found to be mixed into soil and trickled down to drinking water.
Packaging Fees for manufacturers to hold them responsible for the disposal of packaging
Germany’s new Packaging law that went into effect in January 2019 is aimed to increase packaging tax based on whether the packaging is “returnable” or not. The law is targeting to take their returnable packaging to 70% on the retail shelves. “The new packaging law will also encourage reusable packaging, with a goal of 70% returnable containers for beverage products. In addition, retailers will be required to mark store shelves as to whether beverage packaging is reusable or disposable. Currently, about 45% of beverages sold in Germany come in reusable packaging.”
With Germany leading the world, as they are much ahead on holding manufacturers responsible for packaging — other European countries such as Denmark, Finland, and Latvia also implemented the practice.
These fees and levies don’t yet exist in other areas of the world. As Germany has been able to implement and see both economic, social and environmental benefits since 1991 it’s time that the rest of the world also pick-up on the message. There are clear and documented benefits with this implementation. The fees collected from manufacturers are used to improve the infrastructure in communities as well as educate/inform the public on processes.
What is difficult in the US is that landfills are often profit centers for some companies. So reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills can be seen as being detrimental to existing businesses. However, through proper planning and repurposing profitability can come from high quality collections, recycling, and repurposing to complete the circular economy. Landfills are harmful to humans, the health of communities near which they’re established, the workers who work in and around them, as well as the environment, and even the quality of drinking water. As we approach 2020 — our hindsight gets better and we have better ways to deal with “waste” and we need to apply our lessons learned into our societies.
This list is intended to get experts and players in the field to think about recycling differently and not meant to be an inclusive list by any means. The opportunities and possibilities are practically endless. What are some ways the future of waste management can be improved?
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