Our Origins

UPSTREAM's Origin Story

UPSTREAM was started by a dedicated group of friends and activists in 2003. The two founders, Dr. Bill Sheehan and Helen Spiegelman, were pioneers of the Zero Waste movement in the United States and Canada. Through their work together in the 1990s on expanding recycling and composting, they soon realized that while recycling is important, we cannot recycle our way to a sustainable future.

They saw global production and consumption systems that were simultaneously driving the destruction of our wild places and local economies, and causing climate disruption, toxic pollution and widespread species collapse. No amount of interventions at the end of the pipe were going to change this paradigm.

They knew that to solve these problems, we have to work upstream. We have to build a circular economy where products are designed with safe, sustainable materials and produced with renewable energy. We have to ensure that consumer products and packaging are redesigned to either safely biodegrade or become manufacturing inputs for the next generation of products. And we have to build and sustain the infrastructure to make it possible.

Promoting Extended Producer Responsibility and Sustainable Product Policy

Helen, Bill and our founding Board of Directors recognized that the source of many of our environmental problems are rooted in a lack of accountability for the downstream impacts of poor decisions made by major companies. As an antidote, we became the first national organization to widely promote extended producer responsibility (EPR) as a transformative solution to these problems. EPR policies make consumer goods companies legally responsible for the environmental and social impacts of their products. When implemented well, EPR helps ensure corporations design their products with sustainable materials, and finance the systems to collect and recycle their products and packaging – building the circular economy along the way.

Coalition-Builders, Thought-Leaders, and Movement-Catalysts

Over the years, we have developed policies and organized public interest groups, government officials, leading companies, and citizens to change the way we make products and use materials. UPSTREAM has been the catalyst and clearinghouse for incubating and creating multiple national coalitions and campaigns in this service. By organizing diverse constituencies into powerful networks and aligning them around system-changing solutions, we can effect change at a high level with limited resources. Our efforts – and those of our partners and networks – have established a legacy of transformative policy that is addressing the environmental impacts of products and changing the way we do business. More than 100 producer responsibility laws covering 13 different types of products have been adopted in 34 states since our founding in 2003.

Solving Plastic Pollution & Promoting Sustainable Packaging

While laws are important, we know that legislation alone cannot bring about the change we need. Through an integrated national strategy with #breakfreefromplastic U.S., UPSTREAM is making throw-away "weird" and throw-away-free the new normal. 

Bringing innovative strategies and partnering with business, government and non-profits, UPSTREAM is sparking solutions to plastic pollution and our throw-away world. Just like kids today can’t remember what it was like when people smoked in restaurants and on airplanes - we want their kids to not be able to remember what it was like when we threw everything away.