Eco-Fees: Changing ‘Visibility Concerns’ to ‘Visible Change’ – Environmental Leader

Influencing consumer behavior

The biggest roadblock to the success of any recycling program is changing consumer behavior in what they buy and how they dispose of products. Great infrastructure and consumer education programs don’t necessarily overcome consumer apathy.

Fees and taxes, however, can be powerful tools to change behavior. For example, governments around the world have applied huge excise taxes to dissuade people from purchasing tobacco and alcohol. These fees are not designed to recover the costs of disposing of beer cans, liquor bottles and cigarette packs, but to lower cigarette and alcohol consumption. In Europe, high gasoline taxes encourage alternative transportation (such as mass transit and bicycles) and the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Across-the-board fees, which is the approach many programs take, do little to change how people operate. If all computer monitors include the same $25 disposal fee, regardless of the size, construction or environmental attributes, why should a consumer choose one over the other? Why should a manufacturer choose to make a more environmentally responsible product, particularly when they are portrayed the same to consumers? The flat-fee approach simply shifts the cost of disposal and recycling from municipalities to consumers and manufacturers. It does not influence either the consumer or manufacturer to select a more environmentally preferable option. Eco-fees based on product design and the ease or difficulty of recycling, though, can benefit everyone.

Encouraging environmentally friendly product design

What if we looked beyond a product’s end-of-life disposal and based eco-fees on the entire environmental benefit? Comprehensive evaluations might consider how much recycled material a product uses or how easy it is to disassemble and recycle. We might even consider the type of fuel used in the manufacturing process. With a structure like this, the fees would reflect not just the average cost of collection and recycling, but the true value of diverting a product’s waste from landfills and lessening its impact on the environment.

In this scenario, fees would reward consumers for selecting more eco-friendly products and encourage manufacturers to use more environmentally responsible resources to create more sustainable products. If consumers demand products made with more recycled material because it saves them money, manufacturers will redesign their products to meet that demand and increase sales and market share.

It isn’t logical that a product constructed out of 100% recycled material carries the same environmental impact and eco-fee as a product made out of 50% recycled material, but almost all EPR programs have this fee structure. Similarly, a product whose components are sealed and difficult to recycle is typically treated the same as a product that can be easily disassembled and recycled. Uniform application of eco-fees removes the incentive to design – or purchase – better products.

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