Call2Recycle CEO & President, Carl Smith, will be a guest blogger for the month of May on Waste & Recycling News. This is the third installment, bookmark this site and check back for new posts each week.
Product stewardship must be a shared responsibility
In our previous post we talked about recycling having been around before there was an environmental movement. When your thrifty grandmother saved everything knowing she would find another use for it, she was recycling. Last week’s return-for-deposit glass bottle example is another recycling effort motivated by economics.
From a pragmatic perspective, the costs and benefits of recycling programs depend on the specific products or materials addressed. Research by Michael Sturges of Pira International has found where a material has a positive value at end-of-life – the costs of collecting, sorting and reprocessing are lower than the market value of the reclaimed material – market forces will generate recycling programs regardless of the scale of environmental impact. The greater the end-of-life value, the more likely that development will occur.
Where the value of recovered material is negative – the costs of collecting, sorting and re- processing are greater than the value of the material reclaimed or produced – recycling will only occur with market intervention, Sturges continues. Whether market intervention should be pursued or not may depend upon the relative scale of the environmental impact. In instances where environmental impact is high, a prescriptive approach may be required to ensure that high levels of environmental protection are achieved.
Whether prescribed or not, recycling programs appear to have a significant role to play in situations where the end-of-life value of products is low but the scale of environmental impact of disposal is significant. The question becomes who bears the burden of ensuring proper disposal in these instances?
Municipalities have traditionally conducted a community’s waste management, including properly disposing of hazardous trash. As the amount of hazardous materials has grown, governments have sought ways to mitigate increasing costs. Some municipalities and states have put the onus on manufacturers with extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes in various forms, such as fees or mandatory take-back programs.
While they may be able to mandate away their financial responsibility, these programs cannot replace the municipality’s leadership role. Additionally, as they institute these programs, governments must provide the infrastructure, such as collection centers or curbside programs, as well as promote recycling in their communities. None of these efforts, however, can be effective without educated, motivated consumers.
Historically, collection rates for most recycling programs in the United States have been low, particularly compared to places like Western Europe. Product stewardship still depends, ultimately, on end-user behavior for its success, and since most systems in place are voluntary, there is little incentive to propel them to action. Joint efforts between manufacturers, retailers, government and the public can best affect education to motivate consumer behavioral change. To have an impact, product stewardship must be a shared responsibility amongst manufacturers, retailers, consumers, and government.