Product Stewardship: The Carrot, The Stick

by Julia Steinberger

For someone at the forefront of our region's product stewardship movement, David Stitzhal is remarkably positive about big corporations.

"A lot of manufacturers want to do the right thing," says Stitzhal, who is president of Full Circle Environmental Inc. and coordinator of the Northwest Product Stewardship Council. He even says there are corporate bigwigs telling him openly that their companies are poised to become leaders in product stewardship and other environmentally progressive incentives ... they're just waiting for the government to say, "go."

If manufacturers' intentions are as good as he says, why do we need legislation like Washington's Electronic Product Recycling Law, which will require manufacturers to foot the bill for collecting, transporting and processing used computers, monitors, laptops and TVs at no cost to consumers starting in January 2009? (Similar policies already exist in other U.S. states)

Legislation will level the playing field for manufacturers, in a system where, according to Stitzhal, "it's economically disadvantageous to do some kind of environmental activity." By allowing some companies to rely on tax dollars to clean up toxic chemicals from their products at the end of those products' useful lives, our legislators are in effect condemning the system to continue to operate in the least healthy way possible. In this climate, a company chooses to redesign products for re-use, and to collect used products for recycling, at their own financial risk. And that can be a hard motion to squeeze past shareholders.

This is why product stewardship is one area where a little legislation, teamed with a lot of entrepreneurial innovation, can go a long way. Baseline legislation that requires manufacturers to assume from the outset that their products must be assembled in such a way – and from such materials – that they are able to be safely re-collected and processed at minimal cost to their company allows manufacturers to put their R&D teams to work designing products that are inherently safer, more responsible and more reusable.

The benefits of product stewardship (also known as "producer takeback") are numerous, and they go beyond simply re-directing hazardous e-waste away from landfills and socially oppressive dumps in the developing world. The principle itself has the potential to improve our entire industrial system, from the design and creation of new products to the disposal of old ones. Because when manufacturers are faced with the responsibility of reclaiming their products, you'd better believe they will start to design products in a way that makes it easy and cost-effective to recapture and reuse the expensive raw materials they're made from. See, for example, this pop-apart cell phone, designed to reduce disassembly time from five minutes to a mere two seconds. And the technology can extend beyond electronics, to include other products like pharmaceuticals or even Brita filters.

Like too many tried-and-true strategies (particularly where toxic products are concerned), ), whether we can – or should – make producer takeback programs a goal isn't even really a debate anymore. Initiatives in Europe, Canada and other nations have been spurring manufacturers to redesign and reclaim their hazardous electronic waste for years.

Stitzhal admits that the Washington plan is limited in scope, though he is encouraged that it's a great start. But the action we're seeing at the state level will set an important precedent. As Hewlett-Packard notes federal legislation, when it comes, will be based on the state legislation that is being developed and tested right now.