Product stewardship laws represent a new strategy for managing solid waste. The goal of these laws is to ensure those involved in the lifecycle of a product share responsibility for reducing its health and environmental impacts. Under these laws, the producer is held primarily responsible for financing a stewardship program. The first product stewardship laws, which covered batteries, were enacted in Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont in 1991. A few other battery-related laws were passed in the 1990s. However, interest appeared to die out until the passage of an electronics recycling law in Maine and a mercury automobile switch law in New Jersey in 2004. By 2011, 25 laws covering electronics products had been enacted, with the biggest surge in 2008. Fourteen states enacted automobile switch laws, all but one by 2006. Ten states passed thermostat laws, six of them in 2008. Nine laws cover different types of batteries. An additional nine laws cover an array of products including paint, fluorescent lights, cell phones, pesticide containers, "green chemistry," and carpets.
Finally, one state, Maine, enacted a "framework" law in 2010. Framework laws establish a mechanism in which state regulators instead of state legislators select products that will be subject to product stewardship. Their goal is to "streamline" the process of creating product stewardship requirements. Recently, product stewardship advocates have started promoting these laws for commonly recycled materials such as packaging and printed paper.
Advocates generally cite three core objectives for product stewardship. First, the internalization of post-consumer management costs in a product’s cost. Second, when manufacturers have to bear this cost, they will have an incentive to design their products for increased recyclability and reduced use of toxic components. Third, as a result, local governments will have lower solid waste management costs.
Because so many of these laws are new, we have little data about their cost or effectiveness. "From Birth to Rebirth: Will Product Stewardship Save Resources?" was written by the Association's Chaz Miller for the American Bar Association’s Energy, Environment and Resources Section Fall Workshop, in October 2011. This paper was named Best Paper of the Workshop. It examines the status of product stewardship laws and their ability to meet their stated objectives.
The National Waste & Recycling Association published its policy on product stewardship. We urge caution in moving forward with new product stewardship laws. Before placing stewardship requirements on a product, a state legislature should first conduct a life cycle analysis to ensure the law will provide overall environmental benefits. The legislature should also consider the cost and potential effectiveness of a new recycling program compared with the cost and effectiveness of existing programs. Any product stewardship organization established by state law should not be exempt from antitrust provisions and must operate with complete transparency.
America already has an effective recycling and solid waste management system. Of course, we can always do better, but let's remember that a competitive waste and recycling services market guarantees that the cost of recycling will remain reasonable. If a product stewardship organization does not competitively bid for service providers, or establishes an inflexible take back program which denies the manufacturer's or service provider’s ability to be innovative, consumers will be faced with an unnecessarily expensive program. Product stewardship organizations must honor existing collection or processing contracts or other legal relationships between recyclers and local governments. Finally, the process of selecting service providers must be fully transparent and should follow state public procurement requirements.