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Should we charge a virgin tax?

Brazil, beyond Carnaval and its taste for open source software, is doing something we should all pay attention to: Its National Policy on Solid Waste was passed last year, and has laid out an extensive range of measures to better address the disposal, recycling and reuse of waste material.

Of most interest to the Packaging Digest community is this paragraph:

“The National Solid Waste Policy provides for Reverse Logistics, a set of actions, procedures, and means aimed at facilitating the collection and return of solid wastes to their original producers, so that they can be treated and reused in new products–in the form of new inputs–either in their cycle or in new production cycles, so as to prevent the generation of rejects, i.e., the return of wastes (pesticides, batteries, tires, lubricating oils, and plastic bags, among others) in the post-sale and post-consumption phases.”

From what I gather, this program looks to meet or exceed other similar private/public waste reduction efforts like in Europe, encompassing everything from individuals to the largest companies.

These country’s examples got me thinking: What if we began taxing all use of virgin material in products as a way to increase the pace of upping the percentage of recycled and reused materials faster? It could be on the producer, the retailer or the consumer.

Aside from the sky falling, as I’m sure many businesses would cry, this would encourage a broader based use of existing recycled, upcycled and directly reused components happening, and fast.

Or would it?

It’s possible that companies, rather than move the needle on increasing the inclusion of non-virgin materials in their products, could just find a way to pass on the cost to consumers. To do so would be an unwise move, as competitors who do jump in with both legs will be offering consumers a better product at a similar or lower price in comparison. So while businesses with a near term, narrow focus on their costs may attempt this short sighted route, it will hurt them in the end.

What if retailers were the ones taxed?

This would be a whole different story. There would be an instant incentive to find comparable, consumer attractive products that cost less for them to stock. It could prove tricky, as consumers can be deeply attached to certain brands, certain products.

If consumers were the ones taxed, I hate to say it, but I don’t think any substantial difference would be made in their buying habits, other than perhaps buying less. Look at the recent ruckus being made over gas prices. Many green pundits predict this will be what, um, drives people to get more fuel-efficient cars, investigate other modes of transit, etc.

Rewind back a few years ago when prices did the same. How much difference did it make, beyond the already green inclined? Not much that lasted beyond the eventual decline of prices. Unless prices go much higher, and people get that they’re not going lower, mainstream America won’t budge from their comfortable, familiar options.

Some may argue, is subsidizing the use of eco-preferable materials a sustainable way to go? The often cited example is the rapid decline in solar sales when it’s no longer backed with rebates and tax incentives. To that I say, look at oil, corn and all the other subsidy-addicted industries that spend tons of money ensuring their cash injections keep on coming. Most industries of a certain scale need some sort of external push/boost to become/stay viable.

But this is not a subsidy I am talking about here. This is an incentive program, for companies to stop defaulting to virgin material, and start investigating what other ways they can make their products, both reducing the company’s impact and ensuring that available resources last that much longer for us all.

Call me crazy (I’ve been called worse!) but some creative, assertive actions need to be taken to accelerate the use of non-virgin materials in as many products as possible.

What are some ideas you have for achieving such a goal?

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