Who Should Pay for Waste Management?

Waste is one of the largest environmental problems of modern economically advanced societies (and, since a part is dumped in the developing world, also there). On the one hand, recycling rates are relatively high in many countries (some 80% for most kinds of waste in Germany). On the other, this effect is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of trash society produces: both consumer waste (aluminium cans, plastic wrappers, printed advertisement, electronics with a lifetime of hardly more than a few months etc.) and production wastes. The latter is being better controlled and therefore, better managed in most cases. Furthermore, its amount depends directly on the amount of consumer products. So, the question emerges: how can we lower the production of the latter? And, at the same time, how can we lower the waste generation across the whole life-cycle?

One idea may be a change in the regulation regarding obligation to pay for waste management. Take the example of Germany. Here, every household has to pay for waste management on a regular basis. Waste bins for every house unit are provided by the local waste treatment company (be it private, be it public). The more waste one generates (i.e. the more bins one needs), the higher the monthly payments. The idea of this system is to provide an incentive for households to keep the waste amounts they generate limited. Also, other incentives have been developed to ensure that rubbish is sorted, thus enhancing the capability to recycle or re-use them. However, there is a particular flaw in this system: producers are not part of it. Their obligations are limited to production waste and some regulations regarding the treatment of particular products (e.g. bottle deposit or the obligation to take back electronic products for recycling purposes).

A possible measure to create an incentive for producers to think about how to minimize waste generation resulting from their products early in the production and design process would be to let them pay for waste management, depending on some measures of the waste intensity of production (the simplest measure would be the amount of materials used, but more sophisticated measures are also imaginable). Additionally, authorities would get a steady revenue source that could be used both to develop innovative waste disposal and re-use systems and to pay for existing landfills.

While not solving all the waste-related problems (part of which lies in our mentality), this step would create and incentive to limit wrapping material to the amount objectively necessary or, maybe, to prolong the life-cycle of products (do we really need a new smartphone every year, as ads are trying to make us believe?).

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