Mary Sue is a staff writer for Justmeans. Professionally, she worked for several years in the trenches of New York based financial firms in the area of global institutional investments. Mary Sue also spent a stint working in Russia during the heat of its economic transition, which included a capital markets project and some community development work. Academically, she has an M.A. in internation...
CSR and Product Stewardship
It has long been a CSR principle that entities which profit along a product chain retain responsibility for the life-cycle impacts of their products and packaging materials. The U.S., however, has lagged behind in the institution of a federally mandated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law also known as Product Stewardship.
At their meeting in June 2010 held in Oklahoma City, the Environment Committee of the US Conference of Mayors put forward a resolution supporting both state and federal EPR legislation. Since the greater cost of waste and recycling end up being paid for by municipalities, the committee asserted that this cost burden is effectively a subsidy for producers. According to the Electronics Takeback Commission, e-waste recycling legislation has been passed in 23 states and is being introduced in several more. Earlier this year, the electronics industry filed a lawsuit against New York City's e-waste recycling law, but it was dismissed after the New York State Legislature passed a statewide e-waste law
The rapidity with which electronics become obsolete has created a huge hazardous waste problem in the U.S. Waste has become a big business in and of itself, which has lent itself to unethical practices such as moving toxic waste to poorer communities. Under the guise of recycling, barges filled with discarded electronics are being shipped offshore to developing nations. The Basel Action Network (BAN) uncovered operations in Asia and Africa whereby so-called recyclers transported old electronics from the U.S., which were dumped indiscriminately and ended up exposing whole communities to health hazards. Additionally, workers were employed to disassemble the old electronics in order to salvage reusable materials without appropriate safety precautions.
Last month legislation was introduced by Representatives Gene Green and Mike Thompson which would make it illegal for recyclers to export toxic waste to developing nations. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2010 as it is called, now has bi-partisan support. The new law would follow the e-Steward guidelines developed by BAN, which offers certification for electronic recyclers. The e-Stewards certification program endeavors to create market incentives that responsibly manage the recycling of toxic materials in a manner which does not harm workers, vulnerable communities, or the ecosystem.
Recently journalist Thomas Friedman chided the U.S. for not enacting an EPR, as it was losing out on commercial opportunities. Firstly, there is a competitive market for recycled plastics and electronics because many of these materials can be reclaimed for reuse. Secondly, Friedman profiled founder of MBA Polymers, Mark Biddle, who developed a process whereby old plastics are turned into pellets which in turn are used to make new plastic. This process uses less than 10 percent the amount of energy required to make plastic from raw materials. However, because the U.S. lacking an EPR ships out its recyclable plastics, beyond a small operation in California, Biddle was compelled to set up factories in Austria, the U.K., and China in order to have materials at the ready.
Since the 1990s, many OECD countries have enacted some form of EPR. Most of these laws dealt initially with product packaging and subsequently with products themselves. The ultimate CSR aspiration has been to embed environmental impact assessments directly into the initial design of products, packaging, and manufacturing processes. There is evidence that EPR laws have inspired precisely these types of innovative upfront designs. It not only goes against the grain of CSR, but seems archaic that U.S. industry would still fight against an enactment of EPR. In any event, companies that do not begin to integrate some form of product stewardship into their manufacturing processes will likely find themselves spending millions later for their lack of a forward CSR vision.
Photo Credit: by art es anna