A defense of take-back programs

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The comprehensive management of hazardous waste is an environmental issue that governments currently tackle, especially because of the adverse effects this type of waste may have on the environment and human health.

In order to properly manage hazardous waste, countries have been using approaches like the “polluter pays” principle and the “cradle to grave” concept.  In particular, there is an international trend to adopt the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for hazardous waste. According to this last principle, producers should be liable for the end-of-life environmental impacts of their products. The principle of EPR involves the polluter pays principle, because the manufacturer bears the cost of collection of post-consumer products that become hazardous wastes at their end-of-life, with the purpose of returning these products to recycling, treatment, valorization, or their final disposal.

In this regard, take back initiatives inspired by the EPR principle are a good route for addressing hazardous waste since they allow customers to return products that result in waste after consumption, expiration or just because the products are unused or unwanted, in an environmentally responsible manner.

The European Union and some states in the United States of America have implemented take back programs for electrical and electronic equipment. Other countries, such as in Latin America, have also required take back programs for different waste streams or goods like lead–acid battery, pesticides, light bulbs, and medications.

Although take-back schemes may vary between countries and categories of products (they can also be mandatory or voluntary), based on different kind of countries’ programs, the following are some comments about certain aspects that a take-back scheme should include and why these programs can be a good tool for appropriate management of hazardous products.

First, product take-back regulations should involve not only the manufacturer, but also should impose obligations on other actors, such as importers, distributors, retailers, and consumers. Indeed, based on the "Product Stewardship" approach, everyone involved in the product life cycle is called upon to take responsibility for reducing the environmental impacts of their products.

Therefore, the principal obligation of manufacturers of post-consumer hazardous waste is to internalize the waste management costs in their product prices, facilitate the return and collection of the waste through a statewide network of collection points, and ensure that such wastes are collected, stored, transported, reused, recycled, recovered, or eliminated in an environmentally adequate manner. Importers should be equated with producers and have the same obligations when putting these products on the market.

Distributors and retailers of products that become hazardous wastes at their end-of-life must collaborate with the system of collection points for consumers to drop off post-consumer hazardous waste. In this regard, distributors and retailers should provide the installation and collection points free of charge. They also should participate in the awareness campaigns for consumers.

Obviously, the success of take-back plans depends also on consumers. They must leave the products at the collection points established by manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers and fulfill the proper handling requirements for returning end-of-life products.

Likewise, environmental authorities, or the competent authority, should also be involved because they are responsible for verifying compliance with the obligations arising from the take-back scheme and for imposing sanctions due to the breach of any of these obligations, even on consumers that throw end-of-life products in the trash.

Second, regulations should be flexible in order to allow manufacturers and importers to develop and implement individually or collectively the plans (to save costs) and hire qualified and authorized third parties to execute the program.  This is important especially when they do not have the expertise, experience, or infrastructure and, because most of the time, the recovering, recycling, and related activities are not their core business.

Third, take-back programs should also include reasonable quota requirements, which should progressively increase to achieve the proposed goals. In this regard, it is important to measure performance and set achievable challenges for manufacturers and importers.

Fourth, the collection, storage, transportation, recycling, treatment, and/or final disposal of post consumer hazardous waste must fulfill all the legal requirements applicable and carry them out by authorized parties in order to avoid harm to public health or the environment.     

Finally, take-back plans must provide strategies for communicating instructions to consumers to ensure the safe handling of products at their end-of-life, and for returning them to designated collection centers. Consumer awareness campaigns are important since post consumer hazardous waste is subject to a management system different from ordinary waste.

One of the advantages of the take-back regulations is the opportunity to transfer the responsibility and cost for appropriate management of end-of-life consumer products from governments to manufacturers[i] and importers.  As a consequence, manufacturers and importers would internalize the cost of collection, storage, transportation, treatment, recycling, and disposal within the product price. Although some would argue that these kinds of measures could increase the price of such products because producers and importers would be adding those costs into the price of the products, it is a price that we have to pay as responsible consumers.

However, another advantage of take-back initiatives and the EPR principle is that they encourage manufacturers to redesign their products or design environmentally friendly products, which could reduce producers' end-of-life costs. In this regard, companies may design products that: (i) are easier to recycle and/or reuse; (ii) contain materials that cause less adverse impact in the environment or human health, like for example, eliminating or reducing the use of hazardous substances; (iii) use fewer materials; (iv) last longer.[ii] In other words, take-back plans foster innovation in companies, which may entail a cost reduction of management of the end-of-life product.

Moreover, “[b]y reducing waste through better product and process design, increas[ing] re-use of materials, and greater recycling, we can reduce life-cycle impacts” (Salzman & Thompson, 2010). [iii] In particular, recyclable materials can be reprocessed to generate raw materials, which means reducing the extraction of natural resources and the environmental impacts associated. For manufacturers, such recyclable materials could imply cost savings.

In sum, on the basis of EPR principle and the Product Stewardship approach, take back regulations facilitate the management of post consumer hazardous products since they could involve all actors and impose obligations for each of them. In particular, these regulations promote recycling culture, facilitate return of end-of-life products to consumers, and help to decrease environmental and human health impacts caused by post-consumer hazardous products.

To conclude, in response to the growing problem of excessive waste, the practice of the 3 R's (reduce, reuse and recycle) is a good approach to face this issue.  Although waste reduction can be achieved with good consumer practices, take-back regulations would also help to reduce the volume of waste generated and increase the re-use or recycling of end-of-life products.

Author: David Marín Cortés

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REFERENCES

[i] An Introduction to Product Take Back available at http://www.ce.berkeley.edu/~horvath/NATO_ARW/FILES/Klausner.pdf

[ii] Id.

[iii] James Salzman & Barton H. Thompson, Jr., Environmental law and policy 199 (3d ed. 2010).