New Jobs Lie in Reclaiming Products

The environment is a tough issue for unions. Why? Because the environment poses such fundamental problems that solutions usually, as they are currently determined, mean some kind of worker dislocation. Decisions about dislocation are not made by workers but by people who have economic power. Their first interest is not the effect on workers — but the effect on the bottom line.

Needless to say, economic power can be used to pressure the workers in the workplaces who depend on their job for survival. This creates real problems for workers and it creates real problems for unions.

Contrary to the views of many, though, unions are not afraid of change. We embrace it. We embrace change because change is the only way to improve our lot. But we insist that changes be better for society as a whole and the workers in it.

To solve the environmental crisis, fundamental change is necessary. The environmental problems are complex and the solutions are not simple. Market solutions, although an important part of the mix, are not enough. Fundamental solutions require active and planned government intervention to promote the interests of the environment and society.

We advocate changing the economic and social factors that promote environmental destruction. We advocate worker and social-oriented solutions that improve the position of workers in society and that make society a better place for people as well as for the other forms of life on our planet. I don’t see any other way.

One concept we are promoting is Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR. The concept is simple. But the implications are substantial.

Waste is a serious problem for the environment, and for human health and well-being. The effect in terms of resources used, material disposed of and toxins entering the waste stream is enormous.

EPR suggests that we place the responsibility for disposal of products on the producer. No longer would it be acceptable for a producer to simply sell their product and wash their hands of it. They would be responsible to take it back (or ensure that it is taken back) and to make sure that product is de-polluted and disassembled, and the material contained in the product is reused or recycled preferably back into the same product. Integral to the concept is the notion that the producer is also responsible for the toxins in the product and therefore for the effects of the toxins on the environment and human health.

There is substantial economic and environmental opportunity in “mining” waste. It results, for example, in reductions in energy and resource use, and in the development of new products and new product design. There are also job advantages for workers because disassembly is, in general, more labour intensive than assembly.

But EPR has to be done the right way. Reuse and recycling have to be promoted over shredding or incineration. Toxins have to be removed, both from the final product and the production process. Design for disassembly has to be encouraged. And, in Canada in particular, mechanisms have to be put in place to ensure that we develop and promote the economic infrastructure to reuse and recycle materials. This means expansion of our manufacturing base, which in turn means new economic opportunities for Canada.

So government must play an active role in developing EPR. It can’t be left to the market place.

The CAW proposes legislation requiring autos sold in Canada to be disassembled (in their entirety) in Canada. Eliminating auto waste can be done.

The European Union has already implemented EPR legislation for automobiles. So must we.

Auto waste has an enormous impact on the environment since 25% of the material by weight of a scrapped car goes to landfill. A large percentage of this landfill scrap is toxic. The European Union estimates that 25% of the vehicle weight is hazardous waste and that represents 10% of the annual total amount of hazardous waste generated in the EU.

Furthermore, a 1998 pre-release by the Recycling Council of Ontario points out that, of 400,000 cars that went out of use in Ontario at the time, only 125,000 were actually accounted for by the auto recyclers. Multiply that number by 2.5 and you get some indication of the problem Canada wide (approximately 1 million cars going out of use each year across the country).

The key to capturing auto waste effectively is legislation that requires vehicles to be deregistered and fully disassembled.

In Europe, current legislation restricts vehicle waste going to landfill to 15% by 2006. By 2015, the limit is 5%. The EU also requires the elimination of toxics through the phase-out of heavy metals (metals such as lead, cadmium). Every car must come with directions for disassembly and can be deregistered only after meeting legislated requirements.

If Canada took the initiative of legislating requirements for disassembly of end-of-life vehicles, elimination of toxics in the automobile, and design for disassembly, then perhaps we could develop a planned, nationally constructed disassembly program that protects the environment and creates more jobs and a greater role for Canada in emerging production processes. That would be progress.

Basil “Buzz” Hargrove is national president of the Canadian Auto Workers.