Suddenly, solid waste is back -- literally and figuratively. The combination of lean times and growing concerns about hazardous and nondegradable waste have made it more necessary, and more profitable, for companies to engage in a range of strategies and activities cumulatively known as "product stewardship."
Simply put, product stewardship requires that companies retain responsibility for their goods long after they sell them -- and even after the goods have outlived their useful lives. That means making sure that products and packaging contain ingredients and materials that are least harmful to people and the environment, and that these things are disposed of in ways that don't cause harm.
A growing amount of the action has to do with reducing materials and packaging in the first place —the first "R" in the "reduce, reuse, recycle" hierarchy known these days by nearly every school kid. Jurisdictions (such as San Francisco and New York state), retail chains (such as Whole Foods and IKEA), even entire countries (such as China) are banning problematic materials, such as styrene foam takeout containers and plastic shopping bags, among other things that cause litter and don't degrade in landfills.
Increasingly, many of these activities are being codified by local jurisdictions. Product stewardship councils in Vermont and British Columbia have adopted the"Joint Framework Principles for Product Stewardship Policy," with the aim of shifting the burden of disposal from governments and taxpayers to producers. At its meeting in July, the National Association of Counties passed are solution supporting an extended producer responsibility framework for its members.
Some companies aren't waiting to be told what to do. Computer manufacturers like Dell and HewlettPackard have redesigned packaging to create less waste and lower costs. Dell,for example, said it planned to eliminate 20 million pounds of packaging worldwide within the next four years, a move expected to save about $8 million. HP, for its part,accepted a challenge from Wal-Mart to reduce material use and waste by introducing a notebook PC in a recycled laptop bag with 97 percent less packaging than typical laptops.
Of course, what goes inside those computer packages has also become a focus of product stewardship advocates. Used computers and other so-called e-waste continue to plague landfill managers with its lode of unrecyclable and toxic materials, many of which have been banned from landfills in some jurisdictions. Last fall, the U.S. Congress excoriated federal regulators for failing to enforce existing laws, let alone create tougher ones. Consumer electronics companies have been taking action, perhaps to avoid more punitive measures. Some are forming partnerships with retailers and waste haulers -- such as LG's partnership with Waste Management — to create e-waste recycling centers and drop-off points, hoping that such voluntary efforts will stave off regulatory mandates.
Activists are leading the charge. In November, two groups announced a new e-Stewards partnership with 32 electronics recyclers in the U.S. and Canada that agreed to refrain from some of the more egregious e-waste practices. More e-waste laws are forth coming in 2009. E-waste policies and practices are now a criterion for grading companies— not just makers of computers and other IT equipment, but also TVs, which are heading to landfills in increasing numbers in advance of the planned U.S. phase-out of analog TV broadcasts in 2009.
The recession is putting a crimp in many of these efforts. The dramatic drop in demand for materials worldwide has dampened the prices of recycled materials in tandem with those of their virgin counterparts. That's led recyclers to stockpile materials that are no longer profitable to recycle. It's one step forward, two steps back: At the same time that new laws and corporate voluntary initiatives aim to ramp up product stewardship, thereby increasing the quantity of recycled feed stocks, recyclers will be forced to endure a tough economic climate.
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