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Activating effective product stewardship

product stewardship

Rose Read, Director, Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence, says it’s time for a policy that activates national product stewardship solutions across diverse product types.

Product Stewardship has been a key part of the Australian Government’s policy response to achieving the goals of the National Waste Policy Action Plan. 

While a change of government might mean a change in policy emphasis or funding, most sides of politics see product stewardship and circularity as an important waste reduction tool.

Most product stewardship initiatives in Australia (to date) are what could be considered as extended producer responsibility (EPR), where the focus is at the post consumption stage where product manufacturers and brands are responsible for the take-back, recycling, and final disposal of the product. 

EPR aims to shift the responsibility for disposal of products upstream, toward the producer and away from local, state and territory governments. The original impetus for this shift was two-fold: to relieve municipalities of some financial burden of waste management, and to provide incentives for producers to reduce resources, use more secondary materials, and design environmentally improved products.

However, product stewardship goes further than EPR. It is a whole of life-cycle approach to managing products that incorporates circular economy principles. It is about applying systems thinking to prevent negative environmental and social impacts from products as they cycle through the economy from design, manufacture and use, through to end-of-life. 

This means those companies involved in placing products on the market have a responsibility to ensure they are designed, manufactured, used and disposed of in a way that does not negatively impact the environment, human health or safety. 

Indeed, product stewardship can move beyond ‘less harm’ and focus on waste avoidance, elimination of hazardous substances, durability, reuse, repair and remanufacturing as well as dematerialisation and new business models that enable sharing, leasing and collaborative consumption.

There are many initiatives that government can encourage companies to do individually or collectively to meet their stewardship responsibilities during the production, consumption and post consumption stages (see diagram).  

At the production stage companies can implement design changes to make products more durable repairable, reusable and recyclable, including removing chemicals of concern. Much of these changes overseas are driven by regulatory frameworks such as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive and REACH. Such regulatory frameworks create a level playing field, clarity and certainty for manufacturers and brands. An equivalent government measure in Australia is the Industrial Chemicals Environmental Management Standard.

At the consumption stage it is important for brands and retailers to educate their customers on how to optimise the use of their products and prevent environmental harm. This is where product labels such as energy and water star ratings, the Australian Recycling Label and the French Repairability Index are important consumer education tools. Providing consumers access to affordable repair services is also part of the mix, as evidenced by the consumer appetite for increased repairability.

At the post consumption, or end-of-life stage, manufacturers and brands must take responsibility for the collection and processing of their products eg. EPR in action through the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS), Product Stewardship for Oil, drumMUSTER, Paintback and MobileMuster.

Companies also need to decarbonise their products across the life cycle by using recovered and/or renewable materials in production, making products more energy efficient, electrifying products and transitioning to renewable energy sources.

The creation of the Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence was one of several measures former Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management Trevor Evans, put in place as a resource to assist and empower businesses to avoid waste and recover resources.

Other measures included the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund (NPSIF) which has provided an unprecedented level of federal government funding to businesses to design and establish industry-led and business-funded solutions to waste problems that have sat in the too hard basket for a long time. Product types supported under the NPSIF include clothing and textiles, agricultural plastics, commercial furniture, bedding, batteries, passenger vehicles, sporting goods, childcare safety seats, resilient floor coverings, as well as a range of challenging packaging formats such as soft plastics, cosmetics, coffee capsules, compostable packaging, and oil containers. 

If all 24 funded projects are successful, Australia could see the number of collective product stewardship initiatives (schemes) almost double in the next two years. This is a positive step, and the need to learn from the successes and failures will be paramount.

The Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence is supporting several of these nascent collective schemes by helping them use the right resources and providing more specialist scheme design input. 

In addition to collective schemes, individual company-led initiatives are growing in prominence. These provide important market opportunities to differentiate product and company performance based on measurable stewardship services. At the same time, we need to remain wary of unsubstantiated environmental claims and the presence of greenwashing.

The Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the University of Technology Sydney, along with the Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence, are evaluating the effectiveness and benefits of product stewardship and EPR activities. This project is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment as part of the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

The project is focused on how product stewardship activities are measured and reported on by both collective schemes and individual company initiatives.

Data and project findings will be shared online through a product stewardship gateway, along with a series of case studies, fact sheets, webinars and report evaluating the benefits and effectiveness of product stewardship and EPR.

From conversations with product stewardship members and experts and research on product stewardship collective schemes and individual initiatives, it is clear product stewardship will continue to evolve and grow.

There is a passion within product stewardship organisations to better engage and educate consumers, to bring innovation to how collective schemes are designed and operated and look to digital technology to improve efficiency.

A strong message from nearly 60 one-on-one conversations with scheme operators, industry associations, businesses, service providers, local government and policy makers, is the view that regulation needs to play a bigger role in creating a level playing field for businesses and getting better outcomes, faster.

The recent government regulatory reforms and funding have stimulated many businesses to take greater responsibility in developing product stewardship solutions to reduce the environmental and social impacts of their products. However, the focus to date on voluntary, industry-led product stewardship has not solved the free-rider challenge, which remains a barrier to effective stewardship for several product classes.  

If Australia is to enjoy a timelier and more universal adoption of product stewardship, then the Australian Government must implement more dynamic yet proportionate regulatory instruments that prevent free-riding, provide business certainty as well as reward and encourage positive outcomes. In short, Product Stewardship 2.0. 

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