Energy Use and Waste Reduction

We asked fellow Iowans who have experience in the fields of natural resources, either as professionals or amateurs, to contribute an essay related to one of the main Iowa Master Conservationist Program topics. The following essay was contributed by Theresa Stiner, Senior Environmental Specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Energy & Waste Management Bureau.

Product Stewardship

New and improved products continually come on the market, making what we already own seem old and outdated. As we continually chase after the newest products with the latest features, we discard products at an ever increasing rate. Products are no longer designed to last and be repaired but instead designed to run out, be tossed away and replaced. In the United States, 426,000 cell phones are thrown away every day.

In addition to the increase in the volume of products being discarded, the toxicity of waste we produce is increasing as well. Computers, televisions, paint, mercury thermometers and thermostats, fluorescent lamps, rechargeable batteries, anything with a printed circuit board and a whole host of other household products contain toxics such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals and toxins. Although safe when used properly, when these products reach the end of their useful life, they require special management to avoid releasing the toxins to the environment.

The burden of providing management and disposal of wastes has traditionally fallen on local governments. Putting this cost on taxpayers is essentially a government subsidy for the manufacturers. Without responsibility for their product at its end of life, manufacturers have no incentive to produce products that contain fewer toxics or are easier to recycle.

In response, state and local governments have started advocating for policies and programs based on the principles of "product stewardship". Product stewardship is the idea that all parties (manufacturer, retailer, consumer) involved in a product’s life cycle have a responsibility for that product’s environmental impacts, including end-of-life management. The most important principle behind product stewardship is that the greater a party’s ability to minimize a product’s environmental impacts, the greater that party’s responsibility for those impacts.  Manufacturers have the ability to control what goes into a product so logically they have a responsibility for either eliminating the hazardous components or providing proper end-of-life management of the product. Retailers are the point of contact with the consumer so they are best suited to provide consumers information. In true product stewardship, the cost to manage a product at the end of its useful life is incorporated into the cost of the product, in the same fashion as its marketing or transport.

A good example of product stewardship that Iowans are very familiar with is the Bottle Bill. Distributors, retailers, and consumers all play a role in ensuring that beverage containers are collected and recycled. This provides an effective system for collecting and recycling 1.4 billion beverage containers annually without any government funds and minimal government involvement.

Product stewardship has been gaining momentum both in the United States and abroad in recent years. In 2007 five states passed some form of producer responsibility legislation for electronics. Some manufacturers and retailers are voluntarily implementing programs to provide for end-of-life management of their products. State and local governments are collaborating with industry to find solutions for a variety of products ranging from paint to mercury switches in vehicles.

Our waste has changed so the way we manage it must change as well. The root of the problem is that products are being designed to be thrown away and as long as government is paying for the disposal, manufacturers will have no incentive to change. 

What can you do?

  • Purchase products that are durable, upgradeable and repairable
  • Consider a product’s lifecycle cost, not just its purchase price
  • Make use of manufacturer and retailer take back programs
  • Advocate for product stewardship based policies and programs