Historically, federal, state and local government have managed environmental issues through regulation, assessing potential harm to human health and instituting policies that minimize risks. The result has been both environmental and human health protection governed by a myriad of requirements, reports and restrictions. The aspiration of product stewardship – seeking “producers” of products to influence consumer behavior, finance the end of life disposal of products and improve the design of their products – has also been translated into law and regulation in many states and provinces. While the goal of product stewardship – zero waste – is almost always beyond reproach, using the regulatory process is arguably not.
Most of the materials that have fallen under product stewardship programs are not toxic and do not represent any direct risk to human health. While packaging, aluminum cans and newspaper have taken increasing portions of local governments’ landfills, they are not dangerous or hazardous. Yet our profligate waste has to be reversed.
Consumer behavior change is not typically achievable through comprehensive regulation unless there is an immediate danger to human health (think cigarettes). Government needs to take a lighter hand with regulation and a more prominent role as an enabler.
In many states, product stewardship regulations not only require those deemed responsible for products to take them back, but lead the development of educational initiatives to convince consumers to bring those products back, whether to a retail or municipal drop-off location. These same regulations often also have performance targets – and sometimes penalties for non-performance – also placed onto product manufacturers and their product stewardship organizations.
This approach has two serious flaws: 1) the assumption that product stewards are the most credible voice in environmental issues and behavior; and 2) the belief that if consumers only knew what needed to be recycled and where they could recycle material, recycling rates would soar. The data doesn’t agree.
Consumers don’t believe product manufacturers’ green claims and don’t consider them to be credible sources for environmental information on issues like recycling. Exposés on “green-washing” (see the Sins of Green-Washing – www.sinsofgreenwashing.org) routinely illustrate this concern. In fact, government information has shown to have the greatest credibility regarding environmental information among consumers. It’s a task that government cannot abdicate as part of broader efforts to make manufacturers more responsible for the products they put into the marketplace. Governments must partner with product stewardship programs to change behaviors.
The data also indicates that knowing what and where to recycle is simply not enough. Most consumers know that aluminum cans should be recycled and know where to go to act on this knowledge but, in those states without a deposit program, barely 50% of all aluminum cans are recycled.
Will placing responsibility on product stewardship programs to change this behavior make a difference? Should these programs be held accountable when behaviors don’t change?
Of course not.
A change in consumer behavior is a long journey that must involve multiple parties – particularly government and manufacturers – jointly working towards this goal. Government must enable success of these programs and not attempt to achieve goals through regulation. The regulatory approach has a much more limited role in product stewardship than it has in typical approaches to environmental concerns.
A study by Idaho State University (MCBETH, M. K., LYBECKER, D. L. and GARNER, K. A., 2010, The Story of Good Citizenship: Framing Public Policy in the Context of Duty-Based versus Engaged Citizenship) reveals some of the keys to changing consumer attitudes towards recycling. The study found that appealing to the public’s sense of duty as a citizen was often the most compelling message in encouraging recycling rather than focusing specifically on issues like environmental outcomes. This approach was consistently receptive regardless of the individuals’ political persuasion or the importance they placed on environmental issues. These types of messages have to be backed by the leadership of government and reinforced by messaging from other stakeholders including retailers and product manufacturers.
Product stewardship must be a shared responsibility or it simply won’t be successful. Seeking funding for municipal recycling programs from product stewards is wholly insufficient; regulating product manufacturers to change consumer behavior is equally hollow. Only a partnership with shared responsibilities and realistic expectations – including a long-term commitment to change – will yield the best results. Unfortunately, rarely is this the approach taken in the current marketplace.
Carl Smith is CEO & President of Call2Recycle®, a free battery and cellphone collection and recycling organization, operated by RBRC, that has thousands of collection sites throughout North America (www.call2recycle.org). Previously, Carl was CEO of GREENGUARD Environmental Institute and is a LEED® Accredited Professional.