What is Product Stewardship?
Product Stewardship (otherwise known as Extended Product Responsibility or EPR) is a principle that directs all actors in the life cycle of a product to minimize the impacts of that product on the environment. Product stewardship means that all parties who have a role in designing, producing, selling or using a product assume responsibility for the environmental impacts of that product throughout its life. What is unique about product stewardship is its emphasis on the entire product system in achieving sustainable development.
Product Stewardship extends manufacturers’ responsibility for products to the disposal and recycling stages. This shift in responsibility provides an incentive for manufacturers to think differently about resources and materials so that toxicity reduction, reuse and recycling are considered at the product design stage.
Under product stewardship, all participants in the product life cycle -- designers, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, users, recyclers and disposers -- share responsibility for the environmental effects of the products. Product Stewardship is an umbrella under which familiar environmental strategies exist: Design for the Environment, greening the supply chain, Pollution Prevention, resource conservation, take-back, product to service transition. These are but a few of the strategies that embody the principle of product stewardship.
Why is it important?
What is the problem and how does product stewardship solve it?
There is a growing awareness in the United States that natural resources and materials are not being managed and utilized in a sustainable manner. With little or no economic incentive to design products with resource conservation, waste reduction, reuse, and/or recyclability in mind, materials are used and discarded too quickly, wasting both renewable and non-renewable resources.
Communities in the Northwest have worked hard to reduce waste generation and disposal in the region. To date, efforts have focused primarily on addressing these issues as products reach the end of their intended life. Removing materials from the waste stream after they have been discarded is expensive and inefficient. Currently, local governments bear the greatest burden for managing recycling and disposal programs. There is a disconnect between this responsibility and a municipality’s ability to influence product design. This creates three broad issues that can be addresses through product stewardship practices:
Product stewardship remedies this situation by motivating all participants involved in a product’s life cycle to work together cooperatively and to share the responsibility for minimizing the environmental impacts of that product. It is in this context and with a desire to stay competitive in a changing global economy that the EPA and others are trying to integrate product stewardship into the economic and policy structures of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
- There is an inefficient use of natural and material resources,
- There is inequitable responsibility for environmental and economical impacts throughout the product chain, and
- The Northwest is not be poised to maintain its global environmental competitiveness as the other countries and areas embrace product stewardship policies.
Voluntary systems in which ownership of durable materials and products is never transferred down the product chain. Instead, the function of the materials or products is leased to the user encouraging the producer to close material loops and extend product life.
Example: Carpet Leasing Program developed by Interface Flooring Systems in which Interface retains ownership of the commercial carpet, charging a lease fee for installing and maintaining it, replacing worn portions and whole sections when necessary, and recycling back into carpet when replaced.
Take Back or Buy Back Programs
The producer takes back or buys back products or waste materials for recycling, reuse or proper management in order to mitigate downstream environmental impacts from product use and to recover valuable materials.
Example: Ford Motor Company takes back bumpers and recycles them into new bumpers. They are recycling approximately 1.5 million pounds of Xenoy plastic (the stuff bumpers are made of) per year.
Life-Cycle Management Programs
These include environmental management and audit programs which are extensions of internal environmental management systems extended upstream (to provide assistance to suppliers) and downstream (to provide assistance to product users).
Example: Rochester Midland Corporation, a chemical specialty manufacturer of cleaning products for institutional building cleaning, developed a new line of cleaning products with environment, health and safety in mind, then formed a “life-cycle partnership” with an institution cleaning service, a government building manager and the tenants of a large government building. Through their program, they address the entire lifecycle of their products from product redesign to end user support.