Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not Me

One of the repeat gags in The Family Circus comic strip featured two characters “Not Me’ and “I Dunno.” In the gag, one of the parents, surveying some disaster or another, asked the kids“Who made this mess?” to which the kids answered “Not Me” and “I dunno” while the ghost-y creatures of that name snickered in the background.

This time of year includes city cleanup days, all of us pitching in to make our places better. Surveying the annual accumulation of litter being picked up leaves one thinking about the characters “Not Me” and “I dunno.”

It also leaves one wondering about the role of product stewardship. Someone bought the items and someone improperly discarded them. Clearly the responsibility for the litter is on the people who improperly discarded them. (I saw a pile of trash laying by a trash can on campus one morning and just as I was questioning how someone could be so irresponsible as to miss the trash can and not bother picking it up, I saw the real culprit re-appear – gulls. But we can’t blame gulls for very much of the litter strewn about our community.) Litters will litter. Although over the past several decades we’ve seen a real change in attitudes about littering (thanks in part to the 1970s PSA featuring a teary-eyed Native American character), there are still litterers.

In Michigan, the 10 cent deposit on bottles and cans of fizzy and alcohol drinks makes it worthwhile to keep those containers and worthwhile to pick them up when someone else drops them. The Michigan United Conservation Clubs got the bottle bill passed a few decades ago as an anti-littering measure and it’s worked. When I was living in Colorado, a similar measure was proposed but the retail outlets and beverage industry was able to prevent its passage. They contended that the culprits were the litters and so more anti-littering fines and enforcement was the answers (and besides, think of  the vermin that would be attracted to the food stores where all those returned bottles and cans would be sitting and the extra costs in that handling. Yet somehow in Michigan it seems to work just fine.)

There’s talk in Michigan of extending the bottle deposit law to non carbonated beverages (e.g., water bottles) and drink pouches. The beverage industry is resisting attempts to expand the law. They admit that drink pouches are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable but they point out the environmental benefit of thinner and lighter which means less use of fuel in transporation. (I'm not sure how that negates a benefit of a deposit.) They also point out that the present can/bottle return machines cannot handle pouches. (Um, the present machines did not exist until the bottle bills made them worth inventing.)

Whether bottle bills, bans on single-use plastic bags, deposits on products that end up in household hazardous waste or other ways to solve the problems some products can cause at the end of their useful life, the question is who is responsible. Should we all pay for deposits on beverage containers because some people don’t dispose of them properly? We are benefitting from the use of the products so maybe we all should pitch in to help shoulder some of the costs that go with it. Shouldn’t the companies that profit from the manufacture and sale of such products take on some of the responsibility for cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle management of their products? The same goes for tires and electronic devices.  If everyone was responsible, we wouldn’t need to ask the question. Unfortunately, we do need to ask the question and "I dunno" and "not me" are not the right answers.  

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