Product Stewardship as a Competitive Edge

Marisa Adler, RRS Senior Consultant

Marisa Adler
Senior Consultant

Product stewardship, or the idea that companies foster responsibility of their products cradle to cradle, can help create the internal feedback loops needed to make a product, and company, truly more sustainable. Internalizing each stage of a product’s lifecycle allows companies the ultimate power to influence how that product interacts with the world around it, including consumers. Product stewardship can be seen in mandatory or voluntary formats.

Mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations are becoming an increasingly popular policy tool across the country for managing municipal solid waste costs (reducing volume of waste and targeting hardest to handle/most expense portion of the waste stream). Thirty-two states across the US have at least one EPR law – these laws cover a dozen product categories such as electronics, batteries, paint, pharmaceuticals, and more. There are some plus-sides to the mandatory route including building a framework and funding, creating a level playing field, as well as sharing management responsibilities. However, EPR can be an administrative burden, politically sensitive, disruptive to public sector programs and complex to implement.

Some companies are taking the lead with their own voluntary product stewardship programs. Proactive companies are at an advantage operationally, financially, and competitively. Companies that start early are able to take the time to develop models, test various solutions, and select the most effective and cost-efficient path without the threat of fines or public pressure. They are able to intelligently change their business models, convert systems, and begin innovating in a timely manner.

They are also able to use lessons learned to inform discussions with policymakers to influence the development of rules and regulations that work for, not against, their company and their industry. Once EPR laws do emerge, companies with established voluntary product stewardship programs will already have operational systems in place for navigating mandates, mitigating compliance risk, and managing their products cost-effectively.

Several companies have led with their own voluntary product stewardship initiatives. Dell, for example, has voluntarily sponsored electronics takeback since 2004, pre-dating mandatory e-waste legislation in all states except California. As part of their takeback program, Reconnect, Dell partners with Goodwill stores to collect used electronics from the public for recycling Dell’s program was well established as e-waste laws emerged across the country, now in 25 states.

In another example, the carpet industry banded together in 2014 under the stewardship organization Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) to establish a market based solution for carpet recovery. In doing so, they identified that product stewardship is a joint responsibility between manufacturers and consumers. Although only California currently has carpet legislation, the topic has recently been on the legislative agenda in several other states, including New York, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon (Product Stewardship Institute, 2014). CARE has a jumpstart on understanding the dynamics of carpet stewardship and can transition into a legislative environment and lead discussions with policymakers on best practices and lessons learned.

Prompted initially by EPR legislation for nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries in Minnesota and New Jersey, Call2Recycle (formerly the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation) autonomously launched a nationwide rechargeable battery take-back program that is today one of the most iconic voluntary product stewardship models. In 2014, following shortly on the heels of primary battery legislation in Vermont, Call2Recycle along with three other battery industry groups proposed a national framework bill including single-use batteries. Call2Recycle is leading the curve and utilizing lessons learned to bring best practices to future legislation.

One final example is the Carton Council. Made up of several carton manufacturers, this group leads a voluntary initiative to increase access to carton recycling nationwide by developing markets, enabling processing, increasing access and creating awareness. In 2009 only 18% of U.S. households were able to recycle cartons in their communities, at the end of 2015 efforts increased that access number to almost 58%.

The benefits of having a strong voluntary national program are compelling. A successful program allows a business case to be made for that model, which can be proposed as a best practice when state legislators are considering EPR. By far, the simplest product stewardship program for stewardship groups and manufacturers to manage is one that is uniform across jurisdictions because it allows for streamlined operational requirements, product definitions, contracts, and administrative processes. Being able to present as a unified industry that has a strong model with proven success is a huge advantage in political environments where state legislators are balancing the interests of municipalities, constituents, and the businesses sector.

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