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Carl E. Smith, CEO & President – Call2Recycle, Inc.

Is the Product Stewardship Movement on the Decline?

Five years ago, “product stewardship” topped the list as one of the most prominent concepts in the waste management industry. While the topic carries multiple meanings and implications, central is assigning the end-of-life disposal of a product to the company or group of companies responsible for putting it into the market, typically the brand-owner.  For instance, a carpet company would create, manage and finance the collection and recycling of carpet that it puts into the marketplace.  

Product stewardship, often liberally interchanged with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), is not new.  The US didn’t invent the concept, as EPR’s been policy in the European Union (EU) for years, serving as the basis of its overall waste management policy.  But it was new to the US, which has typically relied on its municipal governments to handle the disposal of waste.

Of course, it’s not this simple. Product stewardship schemes vary dramatically across different jurisdictions and product categories.  Central to these schemes or programs is that they shift financial responsibility for disposal from cash-strapped municipal governments to “producers”.  

The pervasive impact of product stewardship over the last decade can be seen on the disposal of electronics, paint, mercury thermostats, batteries, mattresses and carpet, amongst other items.  Currently, twenty-five states have placed some sort of disposal requirement on electronics manufacturers.

But this trend has slowed and, from some perspectives, has started to change.  For instance, no states have enacted new mandates for electronics stewardship in the last couple of years with North Carolina coming close to repealing its statute.  Despite efforts over the last five years by the battery industry to enact product stewardship legislation, only one state has done so – Vermont – and that was only for single-use batteries. In reflecting on the history of product stewardship, it might have completely stopped altogether if not for the effective, proactive and well-coordinated legislative efforts by the paint industry. If anything, several states have been forced to review their initial efforts and overhaul their original legislation. California recently rewrote its carpet program while New Jersey made significant adjustments to its e-Waste scheme.  Other states, frustrated with results to date, have started to question the merits of product stewardship.

Possible reasons include:

  • The growth of more politically conservative elected officials might have thwarted attempts to pass legislation.
  • Criticism of the cost and impact of existing product stewardship laws might have influenced legislators from passing more.  
  • After enacting laws covering the “easier” product categories, the prospect of passing laws for more complex products might have been intimidating.

Our belief is that product stewardship advocates over-promised and underdelivered on the benefits of product stewardship.  Product stewardship held the promise of being a catalyst for re-designing products, making them more “eco-friendly”. That said, there’s a paucity of evidence that any such redesign has taken place, at least in response to product stewardship.  Advocates also touted how collection and recycling rates would soar under product stewardship schemes and, while some growth occurred, the improvement in collection rates has proved mixed at best.  In the end, it’s become clear that the impetus is a cost shift from the municipalities to various producer groups, which, in itself, hasn’t proven compelling enough to continue the momentum behind product stewardship.  

Regardless of the reasons, the prospect for considerably more product stewardship legislation in 2018 is even less than previous years.  Even the hotbed of product stewardship, California, doesn’t appear to have much more on its agenda for 2018.

For product stewardship to resume its growth, its benefits need to be redefined.  Goals need to become more realistic and the intent of the policy must be more transparent.  Simply subsidizing municipalities won’t be good enough to sustain long-term political momentum.

By Carl E. Smith, CEO & President, Call2Recycle, Inc.

Carl E. Smith heads Call2Recycle, North America’s first and most successful battery recycling program. In this capacity, he oversees the organization’s strategy, partnerships and management of its national promotion and education efforts. Working directly with its Board of Directors, Smith leads the overall direction of the company. Smith has extensive experience in strategic marketing, brand positioning, product/business development and environmental leadership. He previously served as the CEO of GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a non-profit organization that develops and promotes indoor air quality standards and programs.  Before that, he was a senior marketing and general management executive with a Fortune 500 company and served in various capacities on Capitol Hill.

Smith currently serves on the boards of the Green Electronics Council as Treasurer, Global Product Stewardship Council (Global PSC) as Treasurer, Call2Recycle Canada, Inc., and the Hawken School (Ohio). He also has previously served on the board of Quality Care for Children.

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