Product Stewardship – Coming to a state or locality near you

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Kenneth Gray

Product Stewardship.  It sounds friendlier than “Product Responsibility” or “Extended Producer Responsibility,” but it means the same thing:  arranging for collection and recycling or disposal of unused or waste products.  Mandatory in the European Union and the subject of aggressive national programs in Germany and a growing number of countries worldwide,  the U.S. has continued its state-by-state approach promoting recycling – but for a growing number of products and in more and more jurisdictions.

We may have initially started with glass, paper, and metal in the 1970’s, but the range of products and materials covered is now broad:  from batteries, tires, beverage containers, electronics, and tires, to carpets, mattresses, and paint.  Pharmaceuticals may be in the offing.  A new final rule from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would allow voluntary drug collection options for retail pharmacies, drug distributors, and hospitals/clinics with an on-site pharmacy.  

Of course, there is a “trade association” – the Product Stewardship Institute -- whose members are state and local governments and businesses and NGOs.  According to PSI, two states -- California (my birth state) and Maine (my adopted state) -- lead the country with seven or more different types of programs for products.   (To see how your state compares, see http://productstewardship.site-ym.com/?State_EPR_Laws_Map.)

 Legislatively, some of these programs were developed on a product-by-product basis, but both California and Maine have adopted over-arching framework product stewardship laws or regulations allowing the addition of more products.  And some municipalities aren’t being shy – the Ninth Circuit just upheld a 2012 ordinance from Alameda County, California requiring manufacturers to pay for collection and disposal of consumers’ unused medications. 

Some of these programs are after-market recycling operations.  Others are closer to product “take-back” requirements.  The common features of these schemes are a deadline for a program submission (e.g., from a trade association and retailers), fees and potential cost-sharing, management regulations and limited government oversight, and proper recycling or disposal options.  “Reverse distribution” options have been favored by some retailers, who benefit from the additional foot-traffic of potential shoppers – if they can stand the paperwork and regulatory burdens.

If you believe the literature, everyone is a winner:  municipalities have less waste to manage thereby reducing their disposal costs; recycling and reclamation occur reducing energy and greenhouse gasses; wastes are properly managed; and coveted “green” jobs are created.   Obviously, some costs are transferred to businesses in the short term (though as consumers or taxpayers, we all ultimately pay). 

More than a few manufacturers and industries are on board.  Some trade associations -- like the American Coatings Association -- have created non-profit organizations to promote and operate state programs.  ACA has set up PaintCare Inc., a non-profit operating paint collection programs in seven states, with more to come.

In advising the Republic of Kazakhstan on possible product stewardship plans, our firm had occasion to consider “best in world” programs.  By contrast to the U.S., the European Union has incorporated Extended Producer Responsibility into the E.U.’s Waste Framework Directive, 2008/98/EC.    At this point, Germany is probably leading the E.U. through its Closed Substance Cycle Law (KrWG),  intending to promote the “circular economy” by requiring products stewardship to be addressed during the design phase.  The goal?  Development, manufacture and marketing of products that are reusable, recyclable, durable and technically suitable for environmentally safe disposal.  While the U.S. plays out these issues on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction and product-by-product basis, Germany is trying a very ambitious comprehensive, national approach.   The German effort has run into the complicated realities of sharing collection costs among and between manufacturers and German state and local waste management programs.  The country faces additional challenges of collecting and recycling automobiles and all packaging materials, two of the more interesting programs being implemented.

Don’t expect a national law in the U.S. anytime soon, but watch this Product Stewardship trend – it is one of the more interesting developments in environmentalism – and look around.  What products will be next in your state?  Or in your county?  And yes, Kazakhstan is weighing adoption of an Extended Producer Responsibility law this fall.



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