Important Considerations for Product Stewardship Legislation
Product stewardship legislation has been proposed and considered in a number of states. Legislation is often used to compel various product manufacturers and industries to participate in a qualified program. However, hurdles stand in the way of enacting laws that would be beneficial for the environment, business, communities and future generations of people who will be affected by the outcome.
As product stewardship proponents, we need to identify ways to help facilitate adoption of these bills. This starts with a full understanding of the legislative process, what has been successful, what has been challenging and what has been learned.
What we know is that municipalities are often fundamental drivers of product stewardship legislation. Their landfills have finite capacity, their recycling budgets demand relief and their constituents seek recycling options. The municipalities call on state legislators to craft laws that enable the most responsible disposal and recycling of refuse.
State agencies and legislatures grapple with product stewardship. Agencies often seek legislation that will provide an all-encompassing framework for the disparate recyclable mandates for products like paint, batteries, mattresses and carpeting. However, as states better understand the specifics of channels, materials and recycling behavior, they have often stepped back from this “one size fits all” approach. They’ve seen the difficulties in a single, common approach.
Currently, except for e-Waste, there are few product stewardship laws in the nation. Most laws have been recently enacted. More are expected. Though the intent of these initiatives may be positive, governments need to do a better job of differentiating their approaches to product stewardship.
Defining Characteristics: An Emerging Best Practice for Product Stewardship Legislation
A better approach would be to evaluate products and categorize them based on distinct characteristics, which could better support the enactment of product stewardship laws. Key factors must be taken into account, which can help answer and prioritize municipality concerns and shape future legislation. These include:
1. Funding – It is imperative to determine how the programs are funded. Does the product stewardship organization assess a fee for the take-back program or does it internalize that fee? The differences in each funding mechanism define the level of agency oversight. For example, funds that are generated by a fee imposed at the point of sale demands more detailed oversight than monies generated by a self-funding program.
2. Health – Are there any health-related issues that could complicate the take-back of the product? The improper disposal of both batteries and paint could lead to contamination of groundwater and soil with potentially harmful substances. The issues surrounding hazardous materials and recycling complicate a product stewardship program and require distinct measures to be enacted.
3. Infrastructure – Will legislation be responsible for initiating independent infrastructure or can a municipality employ the existing system to ease the burden? Established industry-sponsored product stewardship programs—like Call2Recycle, CARE (Carpet America Recovery Effort) and Paint Care—have very different approaches to infrastructure based on the type of products they handle and the maturation of their programs. Legislation for new programs will differ greatly, especially for emerging product categories. However, partnering with an established program can provide fiscal and administrative relief for the municipalities that are facing known product stewardship initiatives. This is especially relevant for product categories with hazardous materials considerations.
4. Consumable vs. Durable – What is disposed? Is it expected to be consumed or is it durable? Paint, for instance, is expected to be fully consumed and hypothetically have nothing left for disposal. In contrast, a battery remains even when it has been fully consumed. Measuring performance of these product stewardship approaches and how these programs educate the public are very different. Recycling MORE paint may not be the goal – consuming all of it may be. A legislative approach to these two materials must be fundamentally different.
The Conundrum of the Municipality
Municipalities are driving what they see. Mattresses and carpeting are large and bulky materials, consuming a great deal of space in transfer stations and landfills. This provides a top-of-mind concern to municipalities as they can see the space taken by the products. Batteries consume no more than 1/10 of 1% of landfill space and are neither bulky nor visible, thus they are often given a lower level of priority on a municipality’s list of action items. There are, however, potentially harmful side effects associated with products like batteries and paint, which make improper disposal an important consideration. Weighted properly, adverse health effects, for example, would move a product category up in priority.
Legislation evaluated through thoughtful distinctions and considerations like these can help affect positive environmental changes that benefit municipalities, consumers and the environment.
Carl Smith, president and CEO of Call2Recycle, North America’s first and largest battery stewardship and recycling program. Smith leads the organization in its efforts to help preserve the environment through responsible recycling of batteries. With more than 322 million wireless devices (phones, tablets, and e-readers) in use in the U.S. alone—all powered by rechargeable batteries—recycling both the battery and the device are more important than ever before.
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