November 15, 2011

3 Min Read
Circular File: Studied Stewardship

Earlier this year I was asked to be on a product stewardship panel at the Fall Workshop of the American Bar Association’s Section on Energy, Environment and Resources. Product stewardship is the idea that manufacturers should be responsible for the end of life management of their products. Theoretically, they will then include recycling or disposal costs in a product’s cost and design greener products, allowing local governments to spend fewer tax dollars on waste management.

At first, I was a little surprised by the request because I have written virtually nothing on this topic. However, I agreed to speak because it is hard to keep me away from a microphone. Besides, product stewardship is a hot topic and I needed to know more about it.

A month or two later, I learned that all of the workshop panelists were required to prepare a paper, with footnotes. I hadn’t planned on writing a paper, much less one with law review style footnotes. Fortunately, I had the time to do the research and put the paper together with all the relevant facts fully footnoted. I even used some of the footnotes to elaborate on what I had written.

My fellow panelists were Mike Watson from Dell, and Garth Hickle, product stewardship team leader for the state of Minnesota. Needless to say, both made outstanding presentations.

My goal was to assess the effectiveness of existing laws and examine potential roadblocks to expanding them to cover traditional recyclables such as packaging and printed materials. Currently, 32 states have product stewardship laws. The vast majority cover electronics products and mercury-containing products such as thermostats and automobile switches.

The problem I discovered in my research was that while the theory of product stewardship sounds good, we have little data as to how well the laws work in this country. We know, for instance, how many electronics and mercury-containing products have been collected, but the data provides little context in terms of recovery and cost effectiveness, and environmental impact.

I also touched upon the laws that require retailers to take back products such as beverage containers and lead acid batteries. These laws lead to high recovery rates. In fact, lead acid batteries, with retailer takeback requirements in 39 states, have a 96 percent recycling rate. They are easily America’s most recycled product.

In addition, many packages and paper products have achieved high recycling rates without any recovery requirements being imposed on retailers or manufacturers. For that matter, existing collection contracts, jurisdictional boundaries and current waste management funding practices pose significant obstacles to expansion. As a result, one of my conclusions was that a variety of approaches will be more effective at increasing recycling and lowering costs than a one-size-fits-all tactic.

Product stewardship is an important concept that needs additional research and debate. The recycling collection and processing industry needs to be part of this discussion. Manufacturers know how to make things, we know how to collect and process them for recycling. As the debate on product stewardship continues, state legislators need to fully understand what problems they are trying to fix so that they don’t simply create a whole new set of obstacles that inhibit, instead of helping recycling.

And by the way, if you would like to read my paper, shoot me an e-mail at [email protected] and I will send you a copy.

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