Friday, June 24, 2011

Product stewardship is responsible 21st century "waste" management

by Kara Steward, Waste 2 Resources Program

The E-Cycle Program collects and recycles televisions, monitors, and computers.
The E-Cycle Program collects and recycles televisions, monitors, and computers.
Do you ever wonder how local governments ended up responsible for waste management? A century ago, crowding and waste in industrial cities gave rise to repeated disease epidemics. Fear of these epidemics created political support for public investment in sanitation infrastructure.

Clean water and sewerage came first, and later, at the beginning of the 20th century, collection and disposal of municipal refuse. Cities took on waste disposal responsibilities.

But at the beginning of the 20th century, municipal refuse was different than it is today. It was mostly coal ash and food scraps, with a small proportion of simple manufactured products like paper and glass. Today, 71 percent of our waste is products and packaging, some containing toxic components. Garbage has changed significantly over the last 100 years, but our waste management system has not. *

Today, local governments and ratepayers fund the collection, recycling, and disposal of increasing amounts of packaging and products. Some call this “welfare for waste.” Others view it as financially unsustainable, especially in these economic times. There are better ways to manage resources and reduce waste.

Future waste management system

Product stewardship (also called Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR) is the way of the future for our waste management system. Product stewardship is a policy that requires those who design, market and use products and packaging to share responsibility for end-of-life management of those materials.

Product stewardship programs require:
  • Producers to finance the take-back and recycling of their product and encourages product redesign to minimize wastes and toxics.
  • Consumers to properly use and dispose of the product.
  • Governments to set standards and enforce the laws.
In other words, if you design it, produce it, sell it, or use it -- you have a role to play in the responsibility for the impact on the health and environment for the product’s full life cycle.

Washington’s product stewardship programs

Washington State has two product stewardship laws – for electronics and mercury lights. When it started in 2009, the E-Cycle Washington program was an immediate success. This summer we will reach the 100,000,000 pound milestone for computers, monitors, and televisions recycled through E-Cycle Washington.

Since 2009, E-Cycle has collected almost 100 million pounds of covered electronics.
Since 2009, E-Cycle has collected almost 100 million pounds of covered electronics.

The stewardship program for mercury-containing lights is under development, and will be in place by January of 2013. The 2011 legislative session included four product stewardship bills: carpet, medical sharps, pharmaceuticals, and adjusting and adding more products to the E-Cycle law.

Product stewardship programs positively affect local government budgets. In 2009, Snohomish County saved $550,000 in collection, hauling and processing costs for electronics. Additionally, county residents have 15 drop-off options, not just the three operated by the county.

Product stewardship leads to less waste, less toxics, provides more sustainable funding, and establishes important feedback loops. It is a key component of the state’s solid and hazardous waste plan, “Beyond Waste.”

For more information on Product Stewardship

* Credit for the above analysis goes to the Product Policy Institute;

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