Chapter 2: Consumption
History and Scope of the Consumption Issue
Unlike traditional environmental issues-even population growth-consumption of materials and energy is not customarily considered a problem; indeed, it is welcomed in nearly all quarters as a good thing.
Agenda 21, in contrast, identifies "the unsustainable pattern of production and consumption, particularly in industrialized countries," as "the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment." Facts support this assertion: approximately 20 percent of the world's population in the late 1980s lived in industrialized countries. These countries consumed 85 percent of the aluminum and synthetic chemicals used in the world; 80 percent of paper, iron, and steel; 75 percent of timber and energy; 60 percent of meat, fertilizer, and cement; half the world's fish and grain; and 40 percent of the fresh water.
Varying by commodity, this scale of consumption ranges from three to 19 times the consumption levels of developing countries. Industrialized countries also generate most of the world's hazardous chemical wastes, 96 percent of radioactive wastes, and nearly 90 percent of all ozone- depleting chlorofluorocarbons.
THE U.S. ROLE IN WORLD CONSUMPTION
After consumers use a final product, it joins the 200 million tons of postconsumer waste produced in the United States annually. Americans produce the most municipal waste per capita of any country on earth. The United States is also the leading producer of greenhouse gas emissions (contributing 19 percent of total world emissions in 1991) and is probably the world's largest producer of toxic wastes.
U.S. RESOURCE USE
Except for petroleum, bauxite, and potash, 70 percent or more of the mineral and metal commodities consumed in the United States is also produced here. Thus, the environmental- impacts of mining, processing, and transport take place domestically as well.
When people think of resource consumption in the United States, they often think that per capita consumption is rising. This is true only for plastic and paper. Total resource consumption is still on the increase, however, illustrating the power of population growth alone to increase environmental stress from resource use.
Interestingly, the composition of materials used in the US. economy is changing, as lightweight but high-volume materials, such as paper and plastic, increasingly substitute for dense, heavy materials, such as metals. During the 1980s, the United States used a greater volume of plastic than of all metals combined. This has important implications for solid waste disposal as the volume of wastes increases.
As the world becomes increasingly aware of the environmental impact of pattern and scale in natural resource production and consumption, it will look to the United States, with its large role in that problem, for leadership. It also makes sense for the United States to address the sustainability of U.S. production and consumption out of sheer self-interest in domestic environmental quality.
Further, while the data is not comprehensive, studies indicate that consumption is not buying the high quality of life desired by Americans. In the last 20 years, personal consumption of goods and services has risen by an estimated 45 percent. But an Index of Social Health-which subtracts from the positive features of American life such things as child abuse, teen suicide, and the gap between rich and poor-has dropped by more than half.
DECOUPLING PROSPERITY AND RESOURCE USE
Neither industries, retail firms, governments, nor individual consumers, therefore, have an incentive to use natural resources frugally. They are artificially cheap, and gross national product and other measurements of economic health do not capture environmental harm.
In the absence of "internalizing" environmental costs, Americans pay for environmental damage after it occurs, which is generally inefficient. Practical experience reinforces the adage that the cost of prevention is far less than the cost of the cure.
It is also widely agreed that a single strategy would, at less cost than command-and-control regulation, encourage the efficient use of natural resources, reduce waste and environmental harm of all kinds, and promote the development of technologies to improve efficiency and provide alternatives to existing practices. That strategy is to let the price of natural resources rise to reflect "the ecological truth."
Market-based economic instruments such as taxes, charges, fees, deposit-retum charges, or tradable-permit schemes, may be imposed on effluent, emissions, and environmentally damaging activities or products. Under this strategy, environmental "bads," such as water and air pollution, sulfur-containing materials, or toxic chemicals, could be taxed, while purchase of potentially harmful materials, such as lead-acid batteries and automobile tires, might include a deposit that is redeemed when the products are returned safely for disposal.
The counterpart to imposing charges or fees is to remove subsidies that keep the price of environmentally harmful activities and products artificially low. Such subsidies include federal sales of national forest timber and Bureau of Reclamation-managed water at below-market prices.
Environmental fees, charges, and other economic instruments are often proposed as part of broader tax reform proposals aimed at shifting taxes from income and savings to "consumption" in its traditional economic sense-the use of goods and services to meet current wants. A broad "tax shift," as it is usually called, has the benefit of encouraging savings and investment. (The U.S. savings rate is currently at 3.6 percent of gross domestic product, very low in comparison with that of its trading partners.)
Savings and investment are the principal sources of funds for financing the machinery, buildings, and other capital investments that drive economic activities. Savings and investment also drive technological developments, such as ways to raise resource productivity and develop alternatives to materials and uses that harm the environment. Indeed, as sustainable development depends heavily on technological innovation, it depends heavily on savings and investment.
Environmental taxes imposed as part of a comprehensive tax shift could be revenue neutral, replacing taxes on income, payroll, and savings on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Environmental taxes introduced piecemeal could also be made revenue neutral by substituting for selected existing taxes, again dollar-for-dollar.
FINDINGS AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONSAs with population issues, the Task Force recommendations on consumption drew from material presented at the Task Force's roundtables, as well as from the expertise of Task Force members, their liaisons, and non-Council Task Force members. As in the population chapter, relevant policy recommendations of the Task Force are listed before each section below.
USING ECONOMIC POLICY INSTRUMENTS
The Price Factor
Without a doubt, prices are powerfully capable of changing the ways a resource is used. As price goes up, use of a resource generally goes down, though the precise extent varies.
The American experience with energy during the 1970s and early 1980s is often offered as evidence of the way price-hikes reduce per capita use and promote efficiency and technological innovation. After years of paralleling economic activity, the rate of total energy use stabilized during the 1970s and early 1980s, even as GDP grew. Similarly, per capita use of all energy fell during that time, and average fuel economy (miles per gallon of gasoline) rose nearly 60 percent. (Total energy use in the transportation sector grew during this period, illustrating the impact of a growing population and increased consumption in another form-vehicle-miles traveled per person.)
State and local jurisdictions also impose a number of fees and related charges that affect the environment. Numerous states levy severance taxes on petroleum and other mineral resource extraction, have deposit-refund schemes for beverage bottles, and impose packaging taxes. Many municipalities impose user fees for local solid waste disposal and offer recycling incentives. The precise forms and degree of these taxes vary greatly.
The percentage depletion allowance has enormous reach. The Office of Management and Budget has estimated that the federal government loses more than $1 billion annually to this deduction, which partially pays for production of some of the country's most toxic minerals, among them lead, mercury, and asbestos.
Federal law also encourages environmentally destructive activities with programmatic subsidies outside the tax code. Below-cost timber sales and road building, below-market grazing fees, the treatment of hard-rock mining under the 1872 Mining Law, below- market charges for irrigation water, below-market charges for federal power, agricultural subsidies, subsidies for highway construction, and federally underwritten insurance are among the programs that distort the cost of natural resources. All of these subsidies shift part of the true cost of doing resource-related business from the resource developer or user to the taxpayer.
The introduction of new environmental fees or taxes and the elimination of existing subsidies that harm the environment are two sides of the same policy coin. Developing new taxes without eliminating subsidies is, again, like working to reduce natural resource consumption without stabilizing population-akin to walking up a down escalator.
Benefits of a Tax Shift
World Resources Institute (WRI) analysts looked at the effects of a tax shift that would tax resources and pollution instead of income and investment. They found that every dollar shifted could gain the economy-in the form of additional work and investment and in environmental damages averted-$O.45 to $0.80 beyond the revenues replaced.
Without the disincentive from taxes on work and investment, more people would work and make investments, thus adding to income and investment. With the disincentive applied to pollution and resource use, pollution and environmental harm would be discouraged. The WRI study calculates benefits in the aggregate. Individuals and firms in some businesses would experience losses, as with any change in tax policy. The long-term effect, however, is positive.
Thus, environmental taxes are very likely to meet the requirement of all taxes that they be "economically rational," or raise revenue at the least overall cost to the economy.
Meeting the Standards
In the course of the debate that would necessarily swirl around any proposed tax shift, it is crucial that empirical analyses make the distributional effects clear, in order to avoid misinformation about "winners" and "losers." It is also important in the calculation of benefits and burdens to use as a baseline or benchmark for comparison other tools for implementing environmental policy, rather than an imaginary "no environmental policy," which would artificially increase the apparent burden of the tax shift policy. At the same time, valid analysis of "losers"-workers in particular resource industries, for example-will allow precise tailoring of the tax shift to compensate for short-term local effects.
The Population and Consumption Task Force recognizes that a tax shift represents a significant change in many quarters, requiring consumer and taxpayer education and administrative realignment. But no other single policy step could so effectively and at so low a cost move the country toward more efficient-and eventually sustainable-resource use.
The Task Force's goal in recommending a tax shift and the elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies is not to put forward a fully worked out, take-it-or-leave-it proposal-either within the President's Council on Sustainable Development or in the broader policymaking arena. Since such a proposal is the most powerful option available for moving significantly toward sustainable resource use in the United States, we are calling for thoughtful analysis and political discussion to work out the details and make such a policy a political possibility.
Finally, we urge that today s tax reform debate be opened to consideration of a tax shift for implementing environmental policy. It makes sense to us, and we think it could make sense to many Americans, to be able to reduce one's tax bill as an individual or a corporation by saving resources or developing a new technology for increasing materials and energy efficiency, rather than by working and earning less-as economists say that taxes on income and investment make us do-or by taking advantage of tax loopholes, which are the only options available today.
Environmental taxes, charges, fees, and other economic instruments, however, whether part of a comprehensive tax shift or not, represent a dramatic change from the status quo and will no doubt take time. To move the country toward more efficient use of resources in the meantime; to enlist the considerable power of individual consumers, most of them eager to do environmental good; to enable consumers to make wise choices in the marketplace, and to build popular support for difficult political changes in the future, it is important to educate consumers and make available the full range of information required for good environmental citizenship.
Individual Americans are eager to make a difference to the environment with their own actions. In a poll released by ICR Research of New York in April 1995, 85 percent of respondents said they "were interested in doing more in their daily lives to help the environment." And most agree that sustainability requires making changes.
Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed in a national poll commissioned by the Merck Family Fund and conducted by the Harwood Group agreed that "protecting the environment will require most of us to make major changes in the way we live." Nearly half said, "if we all reduced the amount of stuff we consume," it would make a big difference to helping the environment. Another 40 percent said that it would make some difference.
The program Global Action Plan for the Earth, which enlists households in resource saving, has found after five years of experience that households participating in their program reduce what they send to the landfill by 42 percent, cut water use by 26 percent, push carbon dioxide emissions down by 16 percent, and cut transportation fuel use by 15 percent. On average, participating households saved over $400 in the course of the program.
The Population and Consumption Task Force focused on several aspects of consumer education. We first considered labeling products so that buyers can know the full environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life-cycle. So-called "green labeling" or "eco-labeling" is both a powerful force for wise consumption practices and desired by consumers frustrated by existing product claims.
Next, the Task Force considered "greening" government procurement-harnessing the more than $400 billion the federal government spends purchasing goods from the private sector. Our recommendation builds on existing efforts under President Clinton's 1993 Executive Order calling for the federal government to buy environmentally preferable paper products and to give preference generally to "green" products.
The Task Force's recommendations also deal with six aspects of public education: formal education; media messages; advertising; education for fiscal responsibility; community education; and the development of a stewardship ethic.
Perhaps the greatest leverage individuals can have on the environment is through their hundreds of billions of dollars of annual purchasing power. According to a poll by the National Consumer's League released in April 1995, 80 percent of consumers say they think of environmental considerations when shopping for groceries and household products.
Yet, it is very difficult for an individual consumer to "buy green." An examination of hundreds of supermarket products over the past five years revealed recently that although more companies are using labels designating products "recyclable" or "biodegradable," the terms are used more to attract consumers than to inform accurately.
Terms such as "environmentally friendly" are used a third more often in 1995 than they were in 1992, according to a study by researchers at the University of Utah, Oregon State University, and the University of Illinois. And yet the precise meaning of these terms is far from clear. Norman Dean of Green Seal has found examples of telephones labeled "foam-free," when ordinary telephones use no foam; of light bulbs labeled as "using 10 percent less energy" when they also produce 10 percent less light than the comparison light bulb. All of this contributes to enormous consumer confusion, if not cynicism.
Even without confusing or deceptive claims by manufacturers, it is difficult and time consuming for an individual to make an informed choice. The complexity of weighing all the environmental issues involved in whether to choose cloth or disposable diapers is a good example. Whereas disposable diapers have a large impact in materials use and on landfill space-constituting roughly four percent of the municipal solid waste stream-delivering and washing cloth diapers have environmental impacts in the form of detergents, water use, and air pollution.
It is widely agreed that solving these problems requires holding manufacturers and advertisers to standards of honesty and fairness. This is discussed below in the section on Public Education. Another requirement is to develop life-cycle analyses by which to judge the environmental performance of appropriate products and label them accordingly-usually by stating whether a product meets a particular standard of acceptability. Such a label would parallel the popular nutritional labels now on food in grocery stores.
Twenty-one countries have "green labeling" or "eco-labeling programs," including Germany's "Blue Angel," Canada's "Environmental Choice," and Japan's "EcoMark." The European Union and China are both developing programs. In the United States, a fledgling private program exists under the group Green Seal.
Elements of an Eco-Labeling Program
Then, analysts set the standard within each criterion that a product must meet to win approval. For the diapers, these might be no more than 40 percent virgin material and complete return to natural materials within 10 years, under certain specified composting conditions.
For the second step, experts--often independent entities such as the International Standards Organization, the International Society for the Testing of Materials, or Underwriters Laboratory--test and certify actual products. At this stage, continuing the diaper example, analysts would evaluate Pampers, Huggies, Luvs, and other brands of both disposable and cloth diapers to see which meet the standards and merit an environmental seal of approval.
The group of experts that certifies and awards the seal of approval for products should be an independent, or "third party" entity-neither private-sector manufacturers nor the government- capable of fostering an effective program.
A good program also has certain other characteristics: it involves all key interests (businesses, consumer and environmental groups, and governments, for example); it is open, public, and involves peer review; its certification and assessment processes are transparent; its data are independently verifiable; it is accompanied by a public education program; its standards and criteria are updated as science and technology change; and the cost of obtaining the seal of approval does not keep small- and medium-sized companies from participating.
Environmental labeling programs provide consumers with an immediately available, objective, and accurate evaluation of a product's environmental impact. They also provide an incentive to manufacturers to meet the standards-to make products with environmental impact deemed technically acceptable by an unbiased, third-party entity.
To the Task Force, these programs are powerful strategies for educating the consuming public. In addition, they allow U.S. manufacturers to compete in a marketplace increasingly emphasizing clean products, as the labeling programs of the EU, Canada, Germany, Japan, and China attest.
The federal government is the single largest consumer of goods, products, and services in the United States and spends an enormous sum every year buying goods from private-sector suppliers. It is the largest single consumer of paper in the world.
With this purchasing power, the federal government can have a significant impact on markets for-and on the commercial viability of-recycled and other environmentally superior goods. At the same time, the government can set an example for other U.S..consumers, both individual and institutional; it can strike a blow for sustainability; and it can move toward operating at the least possible cost to society, both in economic and environmental terms.
By 1993, the EPA had issued guidelines for only five products (cement, paper, lubricating oil, tires, and insulation), a poor showing, and the percentage of federal purchases of these commodities that were recycled was not impressive. (Although 80 percent of insulation purchased met the guidelines, less than 50 percent of paper, 33 percent of cement, five percent of tires, and one percent of oil did.)
Since 1993, President Clinton has significantly strengthened the government's green procurement efforts with a series of six Executive Orders. They deal with recycling and waste prevention, ozone-depleting substances, alternative-fueled vehicles, energy-efficient computers, pollution prevention, energy efficiency, and water conservation.
New EPA Guidelines
Despite these efforts, green procurement by the federal government remains a small part of the total. The process is complex and time-consuming, and the exceptions in Section 6002 are numerous. To flex the muscle of its considerable purchasing power in favor of sustainability, the government needs to accelerate, intensify, and broaden its existing efforts. In particular, it needs to modify the requirement that goods be purchased at the lowest price.
Direct and indirect, formal and informal educational programs for consumers are appropriate strategies for creating the awareness required to move toward sustainable levels of consumption. The Population and Consumption Task Force examined six kinds of public education: formal education, media messages, advertising, educating for financial literacy, community education, and development of a stewardship ethic.
We certainly know that stories showing wealth become models of a desirable lifestyle to many viewers. The media could instead be an influential source of education about sustainable ways of living.
In 1992, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) undertook to hold advertisers and manufacturers to a standard of honesty and fairness, issuing "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims." These guides describe various terms such as "biodegradable ... .. compostable," "recyclable," and "ozone safe." Marketers are asked to avoid certain claims likely to be misleading and to qualify other claims to avoid deception - the guides are not legally enforceable, but provide guidance only.
The FTC is currently gathering public comment on whether to modify the guides. Observers note that it would aid consumer education to strengthen the FFC's efforts, in particular by standardizing definitions. An internal code of ethics, developed and adopted by advertisers themselves, would also improve advertising's ability to educate consumers.
As a matter of economic definition, whatever is saved is not used for consumption. Yet savings in the United States are abysmally low and falling, while current consumption is high and often financed with rising levels of debt.
The average 50-year-old American has saved $2,300 for retirement. About half of all grocery and hardware store purchases are made on impulse. In 1990, 83 percent of disposable income was spent on personal debt payments. Consumer debt increased 140 percent in the 1980s; in 1993, 4.2 percent of disposable personal income was allotted to savings, compared to 8.6 percent in 1973.
A higher savings rate would contribute not only to individual financial soundness, it would also buttress the national need to increase savings for financing economic prosperity and technological change. And it would empower individuals to live within their means-sustainably.
Working Americans today typically spend 163 more hours on the job annually than they did in 1969, contributing to a pervasive sense of being rushed and overworked. Nearly 70 percent of Americans would like to "slow down and live a more relaxed life." Seventy percent of Americans earning over $30,000 a year say in response to questioning that they would give up a day's pay each week for a day of free time; nearly half of Americans earning less than $20,000 would make the same trade. A third of American workers would forego raises and promotions to spend more time with their families.
Greater flexibility in work schedules would allow workers to take wage increases in the form of time rather than money-a trade-off a large percentage of Americans would like to make, and one that would also contribute to a more sustainable way of life.
The local results are readily apparent once programs are in place. Further efforts are an appropriate focus of public education for sustainability.
AMERICANS AND RELIGION
Various U.S. ecumenical and interfaith organizations have had an interest in environmental concerns for some decades. The National Council of Churches established an Environmental Stewardship Action Team in 1969. During the 1970s and 1980s, congregations all over the country concerned themselves with grassroots issues such as energy efficiency and recycling, while theologians examining the doctrine of creation and the concept of stewardship created a large scholarly literature.
The World Council of Churches worked throughout the 1980s on a program entitled, "Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation." NACRE participated strongly in Earth Day 1990 activities. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment was launched in 1993 at the White House, bringing together major Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant institutions. Faith communities were a major presence at both the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.
Much reflection on the concept of stewardship centers around four interacting moral concerns. The first is a commitment to sustainability-the same kind of sustainability discussed in this Task Force report, or a belief that current practices resulting in deforestation, groundwater mining, pollution, and other assaults on the health of the natural world must be corrected. The Native American concern for the seventh future generation has become a widely embraced example of the commitment to sustainability.
The second moral concern is represented in a commitment to live in solidarity with the poor. Religious communities are making connections between social injustice and environmental degradation and are drawing attention to environmental justice and the need to fight poverty at home and abroad.
The third and related concern is a commitment to sufficiency. Religious communities emphasize that all people have a moral right to certain basic human needs, and that "the good life" is discovered more in the sharing of wealth than in its accumulation.
Finally, many religious communities insist that all people must have the ability to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.
This rejuvenated reflection on the ancient stewardship tradition has given rise to a critical examination of materialism in American culture. A recent poll taken by Princeton University's Center for the Study of American Religion found that 74 percent of working Americans believe that materialism is a serious social problem in the United States. And yet, apparently without ambivalence, Americans live the most material-intensive lives of anyone in the world.
This contradiction is an indication of how difficult it is to live out an ethic of stewardship and achieve sustainability-to resolve the contradictions between moral beliefs and the messages and incentives sent by the larger society. Religious communities have nurtured the concept of stewardship over the centuries and have much to share with those who are struggling to arrive at models for sustainable living today.
Further elaboration of an explicit ethic of stewardship-care for all creation, for all time-would enrich understanding of sustainable ways of living, would provide grounds for choosing the most moral among the many alternative ways of living sustainably, and would inspire commitment to sustainable ways of life.
A NEW MATERIALS ECONOMY
PACKAGING, GARBAGE, AND TOXICS
A new way of dealing with materials is needed that reduces the total volume handled and cuts reliance on virgin resources. The economy must use both raw and secondary materials more efficiently; rely lightly on the extraction of raw materials and reuse and recycle materials already used once; and it must design products for durability, ease of repair, and ease of recycling. This approach not only uses creatively what has until now been considered waste; it also produces less waste in the first place.
The implementation of the first two policy recommendations of the Task Force (a tax shift and elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies) would move significantly in the direction of a new materials economy. In addition, important work undertaken by the Eco-Efficiency Task Force, which we support, broadly defines a system to encourage extended product responsibility. It would seek to ensure that designers, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, users, and disposers all take responsibility for a product's environmental impact.
The Population and Consumption Task Force adds to these recommendations strategies for three selected materials issues. We do this to draw attention to some practical ideas that build on the Eco-Efficiency report, but also to demonstrate the importance of identifying strategies in which all Americans can participate. Furthermore, we believe that these policies give effect to two themes essential to encouraging more efficient consumption: responsibility (corporate and individual)and the use of market-based tools with with or apart from tax shifts and subsidy reduction.
The Population and Consumption Task Force's three recommendations in the materials area call for:
We target these three for a combination of reasons. Packaging and garbage are well understood by the public, which is deeply concerned about them and can affect each directly. Both, in turn, affect the public daily, and working on them can keep people engaged in issues related to sustainability. Toxis materials are dangerous, concern the public deeply, and are more pervasive than most people know.
Packaging is an important component of the total municipal waste stream in the United States, and municipal waste is an important piece of the nation's total waste picture. Finally, consumer waste is critically important in shaping the marketplace, for consumers' demand for goods they can reuse, recycle, and repair will feed back to manufacturers.
These three issues-packaging, municipal garbage, and toxics in the waste stream-interact. Streamlining packaging would reduce household and commercial waste, thereby letting consumers avoid the highest garbage collection fees. The garbage-fee proposal, by supporting recycling, helps create a reliable supply of used materials. Finally, reducing packaging takes some toxic materials out of the waste stream. Details of these three proposals follow.
Streamlining Packaging in the United States
Manufacturers, wisely responding to existing price signals, currently have no incentive to reduce packaging or design it for efficiency of production or ease of reuse and recycling. Essentially, the cycle of responsibility is broken once a consumer buys a product; then it is the consumer's job to dispose of it, not the manufacturer's. This is so even though many consumers actively wish for less packaging.
Making manufacturers responsible for recycling and disposal of the packaging they produce would "close the loop" and put incentives to design for efficiency, reuse, and recycling just where the authority to do it lies-with the manufacturers. Such a program would rely on the initiative and ingenuity of manufacturers to design their own, and likely best, response to the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle packaging.
The German Program
The 1991 German Ordinance for the Avoidance of Packaging Waste specifically calls for manufacturers to reuse packaging or pay for recycling it. The program divides packaging into transport use (pallets, crates, corrugated containers, and the like); secondary packaging (packaging that does not directly contain the product being sold, such as outer boxes and cellophane wrapping); and primary packaging (bags, boxes, tubs, tubes, and other containers that actually hold the product being sold). Different requirements are placed on each kind of packaging-the percent of all packaging that must be reused or recycled-and are phased in gradually.
Consumers are able to leave at stores any secondary packaging they do not want, after paying for the product it held. Retailers must pay for the removal and recycling of the discarded materials, which creates an incentive for them to press suppliers to reduce packaging. Retailers also must take back primary packaging after consumers use up the product; mandated deposits on certain containers (beverage bottles, paint cans, and detergents, for example) create an incentive for consumers to return them to retailers.
Distributors then return the packaging to manufacturers, who are required to reuse it or recycle it privately, outside the municipal waste stream. The law also allows manufacturers to pool resources to form a large collection and recycling system. In line with this option, German industry has established a program by which materials are certified for recyclability-given a "Green Dot"-which has produced numerous changes in packaging design.
Fees from manufacturers based on the weight of packaging they produce funded the certification and collection program in the first few years. But problems with markets for the large amount of plastics collected, and unanticipated collection costs, marred the German program's experience in its first two years. In response, the program shifted to a sliding fee scale based on the ease of recycling each material and is now more financially sound. As a result of the fee structure, one- third of plastic's share of the market shifted to more easily recycled paperboard and glass. In fact, the fee now constitutes two-thirds of the price of plastic packaging in Germany.
The European Union Plan
Between 1960 and 1988, the volume of U.S. municipal solid waste more than doubled, while population multiplied 1.4 times. Today the average American produces 4.5 pounds of trash a day, by far the highest per capita production of municipal waste in the world. Americans could recycle or compost half this volume-yard waste, newspapers, corrugated cardboard, and beverage containers - Americans actually recycle or compost only 13 percent.
Municipal solid waste (residential and commercial waste, but not industrial, agricultural, or construction waste) makes up only three to four percent of the total U.S. waste stream, but it has an enormous impact on municipalities. Three-fourths of all municipal waste is landfilled, but space for, and political acceptability of, landfills grows ever scarcer. Household garbage is a familiar part of everyday life over which Americans have some control and through which they can gain environmental awareness.
Financing Garbage Collection
A number of other municipalities, however, scale the charge for trash collection to the amount of waste generated-the more trash, the higher the fee. Some are able to finance recycling programs with the additional revenue.
World Resources Institute (WRI) analyzed the experience of 10 municipalities that introduced . volume-based collection fees between 1980 and 1989 and found that households readily accept such fee systems, that most cities reduced the amount of waste generated, that illegal dumping was rare, and that local governments increased revenue for financing recycling programs.
WRI analysts found that a municipality that raised the cost of collecting a 32-pound bag of garbage from $0.00 to $1.50 would see an 18 percent reduction in the volume of solid waste it had to landfill. If the town introduced a curbside recycling program simultaneously, volume fell by 30 percent. Net savings to the city (the avoided costs of handling waste minus additional costs to householders) reached 17 percent in areas where disposal costs were high (densely populated areas with scarce landfill space, where disposal costs exceeded $50 per ton). Moderate-cost areas ($20-$49 per ton) realized savings of six percent.
Volume-based garbage fees show that when choosing of appropriate environmental policies, environmental fees (an economic instrument) can be superior to regulation (command-and-control) in certain circumstances. Regulating the amount of each type of waste that each household can produce is unimaginable. Yet scaling the charge for garbage collection to the volume produced is an appropriate, powerful, and efficient approach.
The Population and Consumption Task Force recognizes that decisions about municipal solid waste collection are best made at the local level, and we are in no way recommending a federalized garbage collection system. However, we believe that the federal government can usefully enter into partnership with local communities and serve them by sharing experiences and lessons learned in a growing number of communities experimenting with volume-based garbage fees.
The average American household throws away 15 pounds of hazardous waste annually (one percent of the household waste stream), including paints, solvents, motor oil, electrical appliances, tires, and batteries.
Batteries alone contain concentrated doses of heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, zinc, cadmium, copper, and mercury. Each year, 180 million gallons of motor oil are improperly sent to landfills or poured down U.S. drains, an amount that equals 16 Exxon Valdez oil spills. These hazardous materials, by definition harmful to human health, can contaminate landfills, leach into groundwater, become toxic incinerator ash, vaporize into stack gases, or concentrate in sewage treatment plants. One-fifth of the toxic waste sites placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's priority list as national problems in 1989 are municipal landfills.
As with garbage in general, it makes sense to approach the control of household toxics with economic instruments. The most appropriate form appears to be a system similar to bottle deposit/return schemes, under which buyers would pay a deposit on hazardous materials that manufacturers would redeem return. Manufacturers would then recycle or dispose of the hazardous materials properly.
TECHNOLOGY FOR SUSTAINABILITY
The Population and Consumption Task Force throughout its work and throughout this report has emphasized greater efficiency in the production of goods and services, in order to reduce the total environmental impact of human activities. The goal is to reduce the total amount of materials and energy used in producing what Americans consume. Achieving that efficiency depends to an enormous degree on technological innovations.
Analysts agree that three strategies are especially powerful for encouraging research,
development and commercialization of technologies required for a transition to sustainability.
All are included in Task Force proposals.
Further encouragement for the development of environmental technologies might include funding of research, public-private partnerships for technology transfer, and research and development tax credits for industries. A complete examination of the full range of action required to stimulate the development and commercial availability of clean and efficient technologies lies beyond the scope of this Task Force's work, but we urge all parties interested in sustainability to address themselves to this critical issue.
CONCLUSIONS ON CONSUMPTIONAnalysts have attempted to estimate the amount by which the absolute use of energy and materials would need to fall in the industrialized world for the world's environment to be sustained. For example, Germany's Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker, President of the Wuppertal Institute, cites the estimate that the world's material flows should be halved, and that the industrialized countries should make a 90 percent reduction.
The Population and Consumption Task Force has not reached such quantitative conclusions. Enough is known about resource use in the United States and its environmental impact, however, to conclude that greater efficiency in the use of all resources is warranted, as a first step toward sustainable production and consumption of resources.
This conclusion calls for four steps to be taken now:
Table of Contents | Chapter 3: Conclusions