Companies should pay to dispose of their waste

Cleaning up after yourself: It's a simple idea.

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.
To read more about how California is leading the way in making producers responsible for end-of-life product management, read Heidi Sandborn's article at

It's a simple idea: Companies that create waste should pay to clean up that waste.

Companies that produce computers, or chemicals, or cars, or pharmaceutical drugs, should pay the costs of recycling or disposing of the products. This is already being required in many European countries. But not always in the United States.

Not surprisingly, American companies would rather have the taxpayers pay for this process. But there are many benefits to requiring companies to recycle their own products. Once the companies have to pay to dispose of used products, they find innovative ways to make them less harmful and more recyclable.

If it costs a few dollars more to make a washing machine that later can be easily disassembled for parts, then the company will only benefit if they are paying the cost of recycling the washing machine. If a company uses less toxic but slightly more expensive chemicals, they will only benefit if they have to pay the cost of taking those hazardous chemicals out of the waste stream.

Americans take a lot of prescription drugs, and Americans store and dispose of a lot of unused prescription drugs. These unused drugs are both environmental and public-health menaces. If flushed down the toilet, they can pollute our water. And there are numerous cases of children becoming addicted to prescription drugs they’ve stolen from their parents, as well as thieves stealing drugs from bathroom medicine cabinets at real estate open houses.

Copying a successful Canadian program, Alameda County proposed a plan that would enable people to drop off their unused drugs at local pharmacies. This plan would be paid for by a small fee imposed upon the pharmaceutical companies. However, the pharmaceutical companies sued Alameda County, charging that this take-back program, which costs virtually nothing to run in Canada, would massively increase drug prices in America. Fortunately, after an extended legal battle, Alameda County prevailed.

Now California counties such as San Francisco, Marin, Santa Clara and others are developing similar plans allowing individuals to drop off their unused pharmaceutical drugs at local pharmacies. Oregon is investigating a similar program. California counties have shown environmental leadership with these plans, which could now roll out across the country.

Our local Sacramento Congressman Ami Bera is sponsoring a bill called the Dispose Responsibly of Your Pills Act, which would establish an annual $2.5 million federal grant program to fund pilot programs. Bera’s bill is nice, but it does not provide funding to solve the problem on an ongoing basis.

Bera has no recommendations for where ongoing funding should come from, suggesting that each county figure this out independently.

We should push for nationwide implementation of a solution like the one being developed in Alameda County, creating an industry-funded phramaceutical drug take-back program.

Companies cleaning up after themselves: It’s a simple idea.