By Mike Duggan

Australians generate 44 million tonnes of waste each year – over 2,000 kg per person.In June 2011, federal parliament passed the Product Stewardship Bill 2011. The Bill is aimed at reducing a range of environmental impacts posed by a wide variety of products. Amongst other things it supports waste reduction, energy savings and the recovery of valuable materials.

The legislation allows for the creation of voluntary, co-regulatory and mandatory schemes. The first products regulated under a mandatory scheme are televisions and computers. By 2020, industry will need to recycle 80% of discarded TVs and computers, up from approximately 10% today.

Voluntary product stewardship schemes are likely to be the most common, with both public demand and peer pressure acting as inducements for companies to join these schemes. This nudge from legislation and heightened awareness of what is both possible and desirable will encourage companies to become more innovative as they work to ‘close the loop’in relation to their products. Here are a few key principles to apply.

The basics

Good stewardship requires products and materials to be designed with proper regard given to reuse, recycling, treatment and disposal. For example:

  • Efficient manufacturing processes minimise materials and resources used. Waste is a cost affecting the bottom line of business balance sheets. It represents poor use of both materials and energy. Many companies find that waste reduction programs improve profits.
  • A whole of lifecycle design approach identifies opportunities to reuse waste materials to produce new products and minimise both manufacturing and lifecycle carbon emissions (i.e. both new and embodied carbon), toxicity, and health impacts across the lifecycle of the product. This concept called ‘industrial ecology’ also presents opportunities for job and product creation. What is waste to one company may be a valued raw material for another.
  • Full cost pricing models take into account externalities such as carbon emissions and waste disposal at the design stage. This modeling will be crucial, as product stewardship shifts the onus for the recovery, reuse or disposal of the product to the manufacturer or distributor.

The legislation provides a particular incentive for high carbon emitting manufacturing and resource industries to design processes that reduce energy consumption and waste, and provide for take back and reuse of products and product inputs at the end of their life.

An example

An Australian manufacturer and installer of flooring products for commercial and large-scale residential developments implemented processes to reclaim and reuse post-consumer and post-industrial waste. It also sought to reduce fugitive emissions, mostly of volatile organic compounds that were captured via an innovative curing and ‘blending back into the product’ process.By closing the loop the company reduced its carbon emissions by 1,753 tonnes CO2-e and achieved a 98% reduction in process waste. This almost eliminated waste going landfill, achieving a further reduction in emissions and waste disposal fees.

Motivating businesses to develop innovative CO2 minimisation processes and technology will go a long way towards abatement measures identified as crucial to meeting Australia’s targeted emission cuts.  It can also lead to spin off business opportunities and the creation of new manufacturing jobs.

Help is at hand

Third party certification providers such as ecospecifier global have multiple roles to play in helping companies implement product stewardship strategies. Most obviously we provide independent, third party certification of products that meet relevant environmental and lifecycle standards. ecospecifier’s Global GreenTag®  Program is one such example. Perhaps, more importantly, through education and consultation, we can contribute to the efficiency with which business implement a product stewardship program and transparency in which they present it to the marketplace.

There is a growing body of companies that have benefitted from embracing product stewardship principles. Progressive businesses can gain a leadership advantage by proposing different classes of products to be included in schemes accredited under the new legislation.  As the legislation and subsequent schemes develop we will see a true, business-led shift towards marketplace transparency that will not only foster innovation in product manufacturing, but also a demand from the consumer for eco-preferable products.

Mike Duggan is General Manager and GreenTag Project Manager at ecospecifier global, a leading global source of sustainable development & life-cycle assessed green product information.