Lessons and Trends in Product Stewardship Laws

While Americans have shown an increased willingness to recycle paper goods, cans and bottles in recent years, recycling rates for toxic or hazardous products such as batteries and electronics are lagging behind. But states are ramping up efforts to change that. That’s according to Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Waste and Recycling, who discussed emerging issues in product stewardship laws in the states and shared lessons learned from successful programs at a Feb. 2 CSG eCademy webcast, “Managing Solid Waste through Product Stewardship Laws.”

Product stewardship laws aim to reduce the environmental, safety and health impacts of consumer products, particularly potentially hazardous or hard to dispose of products such as batteries and paint. The laws have traditionally focused on end-of-life product management and usually make manufacturers responsible for safe disposal or recycling of products after consumers have used them. Recently, states have been expanding the reach of product stewardship laws beyond just toxic products and are integrating lessons learned from existing laws when structuring new regulations.

Currently, 33 states covering about 80 percent of the U.S. population have product stewardship laws. These laws primarily cover electronics, mercury-containing products such as automobile switches and thermostats, batteries, paint, mattresses and carpets.

“It is worth noting that of the 83 (product stewardship) laws, 80 percent of them cover products with toxic constituents, primarily mercury,” said Miller. “That’s clearly been the trend in the country—to focus on toxic or hard-to-recycle materials.”

These laws have had “disappointing results,” according to a May 2013 study by Jennifer Nash of the Harvard Kennedy School and Christopher Bosso of Northeastern University titled “Extended Producer Responsibility in the United States: Full Speed Ahead?” The study found low recovery rates for electronics, 15 to 20 percent; rechargeable batteries, 10 to 12 percent; mercury auto switches, less than 25 percent; and mercury thermostats, less than 10 percent.

Nash and Bosso cited inconsistent laws across the states, lack of accountability mechanisms and weak state oversight of programs as some of the reasons for the laws’ ineffectiveness.

Most of the products covered by these laws are physically small and virtually all of them are only occasionally generated, added Miller.

“Unlike paper, cans and bottles that we generate in our homes and in our offices and that we kind of routinely recycle, especially in our homes, there’s no recycling norms for these very occasionally recycled products,” said Miller.

Additionally, the continually evolving technology around these products can make legislating around them challenging. 

“There’s also the difficulty of imposing a fixed law on a very dynamic industry,” said Miller.

Unlike some of the more commonly covered products, stewardship laws regarding paint seem to be working. PaintCare, the product stewardship organization for paint recovery, reports a strong recycling infrastructure with positive returns and high recovery rates. In Oregon for example, 97.2 percent of residents live within 15 miles of a collection center and the state had an 83 percent recovery rate for paint in 2015.

Paint, like mattresses and carpets, have transparent, advance recycling fees paid by the consumer at the point of sale.

“When a consumer buys that product in one of the states with those laws, they know they are paying for recycling,” said Miller. “They get a very clear price signal that recycling is not free and that cost is now part of the product that they have bought.”

Paint also has an advantage because when it is bought, it is often used immediately. Consumers pay the recycling fee and then quickly use up the product, which could contribute to them remembering to bring their empty can to a recycling facility.

Successful policies can vary by the type of product being addressed. For commonly purchased consumer goods such as electronics and batteries, specific recovery goals, access to and convenience of recycling points, and program awareness are key to successful product stewardship.

For products such as automobile switches and thermostats, where there are small groups of producers, industry partnerships, incentives and education are important.

Sharps, such as needles, and pharmaceuticals are emerging as the next focus for product stewardship laws. Regulations are beginning at the local level and are starting to see some success, but the fact that the focus on these products is new is a disadvantage when it comes to consumer knowledge and buy-in as well as administrators’ ability to measure results.

“Both these programs show the extraordinary problem of changing individual behavior where there is no existing recycling ethic,” said Miller. “For sharps to be successful …. It is probably going to require a transparent recycling fee so that the individual user of what is—let’s face it—a dangerous object …knows that they have paid for a recycling container and that they should take that back to the retail point for collection.”

Ultimately, changing consumer behavior is crucial, said Miller.

“Behavior change is what makes recycling work, creating that social norm of recycling,” he said.