What Would Rachel Carson Think
This year is the 56th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which criticized the chemical industry for its indiscriminate use of pesticides. Many regard her book as the rocket that launched the environmental movement.
I’ve been reading and reviewing the progress of what we do in the industry, and Carson and her book crossed my mind as I pondered over at least one term associated with our efforts: product stewardship. I’m unsure if Rachel Carson used that term, but she would recognize our current efforts.
I’ve always felt that no matter how much progress or action we take, a step back — a reassessment if you will — is an excellent way to judge where you are rather than where you think you are. And that’s where my thoughts are these days regarding product stewardship.
I was prompted, in part, by a trenchant article that Carl E. Smith, CEO and President, Call2Rcycle, wrote entitled “Is the Product Stewardship Movement on the Decline?” Referring to product stewardship, he notes that “advocates over-promised and underdelivered the benefits.” In one sense, this is unsurprising. A certain fatigue infiltrates all movements, from political fervor to religious expansion. We only need to look at these sweeping movements of the past that either halted or expanded incrementally. It’s possible that is where we stand today regarding product stewardship.
Unsurprisingly, we at Thermostat Recycling Corp. are more than mildly concerned about this issue. Our mandate is to remove all mercury containing thermostats from the environmental stream and to recycle them safely. We do not inflate the importance of our mission. In the History and Current Status of HHW, a table lists the top 20 HHW materials in the Earth 911 system. Mercury containing items (usually thermostats) had the No. 7 spot.
In a sense, product stewardship and responsibility suggest a shift toward a circular economy (even if many don’t use the term) with its hallmark terms, “make, use, dispose,” while keeping resources in play and reusing if possible. It’s one of those concepts that sound vibrant and exciting in an academic paper or a news article but remain stubborn to implement, in part, because of the need for cooperation and understanding from all partners in the circle.
And a component of that circle is that consumer demand (or lack of it) ultimately drives products. And consumer demand is what satisfies a need now and rests far less on what happens later.
As we think of product stewardship, and especially EPR, two opposing sides face each other. Capturing this struggle in Handbook on Household Hazardous Waste (edited by Amy D. Cabaniss), Jim Hanna predicts that a shift from government support to product stewardship “will prove to be the most politically charged.” He uses the European Community as an exampe where EPR mandates have been successful. In contrast, the United States is less inclined toward mandates, though we certainly adhere to some regulation both at the federal and state level. Hanna says, “Forward-thinking companies with a strong ethic of corporate social responsibly will actively participate in these stewardship processes and will see a competitive advantage with an increasingly eco- and socially conscious consumer.”
Hanna suggests that companies that fail to do so will sit on the bench, and the players on the field — active participants — will not only reign over the “playground,” they will establish the rules.
To reignite the product stewardship movement, especially in the political sphere, Smith says, “Its benefits need to be redefined. Goals need to become more realistic, and the intent of the policy must be more transparent.”
What would Rachel Carson think of all this? I honestly don’t know. However, I am convinced that she would be more than satisfied that there has been both conversation and action across the entire spectrum of environmental issues. If we were to ask her what we should do next, it wouldn’t surprise me (even though personal computers didn’t exist in her day) if she didn’t simply say, “Let’s press the reset button.”