Product Stewardship: Who Should Pay to Recycle?

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A Little Diddy about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Product Stewardship

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you didn’t have to search around to find a place to recycle something? Or pay a recycling center a fee for processing once you’ve taken it there? What if the company that made the item were responsible for it? Now we’ve touched the surface of an important concept with recycling- Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR.

Consumers and Manufacturers

You may find yourself in a dilly of a pickle once a product you own has reached the end of its life. In most cases, manufacturers have the greatest ability, and therefore the greatest responsibility, to reduce the environmental impacts of their products, but the amount that the U.S. government mandates this at the federal level is limited.

But don’t forget that all products are designed with a consumer in mind- why else would a product exist except for someone to buy it? Consumers also make choices between competing products- without the consumer involved in product stewardship, there is no “closing the loop.” Consumers need to make responsible buying choices that consider environmental impacts too, or take the extra steps to recycle products that they no longer need. So who’s really responsible?

Product Stewardship

Product Stewardship recognizes how responsibility is shared, and a commitment is required from not just manufacturers and consumers, but also designers, suppliers, distributors, retailers, recyclers, and disposers. Basically anyone and everyone involved in producing, selling, or using a product takes responsibility for the full environmental and economic impacts of that product.

Product stewardship laws require manufacturers to bear disposal costs for excess packaging or difficult-to-recycle items. Since costs could ultimately be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, this would encourage manufacturers to cut costs by reducing packaging and making products easier to recycle.

Wouldn’t you know it- when recycling becomes the responsibility of manufacturers, they tend to rethink how much packaging is needed and ways are found to reduce packaging and to recycle it more efficiently.


Some Canadians get it- under a new law in Quebec, companies will become responsible for 100% of recycling costs by 2015. Back in March, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to enact an EPR law. States including California, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota introduced product stewardship legislation last year(2009), and 19 states have rules requiring the take-back of electronic equipment. Many electronics companies also have pretty great take-back programs, like Dell and Sony. Other products that lend themselves to product stewardship are cars, paint, carpets, batteries, pharmaceuticals, mercury-containing thermostats, and roofing shingles. (Find articles on these in RecycleScene’s archive!)

So there you have it. One side to EPR is to include environmental costs of products into their price. A higher retail price shifts the economic burden from local government and taxpayers to product producers and consumers. But many people ask why should consumers pay, when companies are making tidy profits? Or, why should all taxpayers bear the cost for packaging from goods only some of us actually buy and enjoy?

Overall, I like to focus on making the world a safer, less toxic place. That being said-

Turn Onus Into a Bonus

Companies that accept the challenge of EPR recognize that product stewardship is a business opportunity. By rethinking their products, their relationships with the supply chain, as well as the customer, some manufacturers are increasing their productivity, reducing costs, fostering product innovation, and providing customers with more value- all at less environmental impact. Reducing use of toxic substances, designing for reuse and recyclability, and creating take-back programs are just a few of the many opportunities for companies to become better environmental stewards of their products.

Many major manufacturers are realizing that, in the long run, it’s more efficient to reuse certain components and recapture the value added during the original manufacturing process. For example:

-Ford Motor Company estimates that its plastic bumper take-back program, created to recycle old bumpers into new bumpers, saves about $2 million each year.

-Xerox Corporation created its Asset Recycle Management program to take back used products for remanufacturing, conversion, or disassembly and saved over $50 million in the first year.

-See my article here on how Kodak recycles all of their disposable cameras to the same effect.

Take Action – What You Can Do

Hopefully this post has gotten you thinking. After you’ve gotten the most out of a product and its packaging, both have to be managed in a landfill, incinerated, stockpiled, or recycled.

Realize that while issues surrounding EPR are “emerging concepts” in the U.S., the Europe has been on it for a few years now. Their legislation forced the electronics industry to eliminate toxic substances from products, and to take them back and recycle them. Read about the European Union EPR Directives for Electronic Products. It will make you say WEEE!

Clean Production Action has TONS of amazing information that is very eye-opening.

The GrassRoots Recycling Network, or GRRN, has a lot of great information about this issue, and about their current campaigns and Zero Waste.

The Product Stewardship Institute has a page about legislation and detailed information about laws across the country.

You can also donate to the Product Policy Institute, based out of Boston, MA.

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