Product Stewardship or Just Cost-Shifting?

Product stewardship is definitely in vogue. The Daily Environment Report has just noted that the United State Conference of Mayors has adopted a resolution calling for “Extended Producer Responsibility For Products.” I understand the arguments in favor of product stewardship. From an economic point of view, the disposal costs associated with products and product packaging can be seen as an externality. Internalizing those costs would give manufacturers and distributors incentives to minimize those costs, through reduced packaging or changes in design/manufacturing that would reduce the costs associated with product disposal.

Nonetheless, I’m skeptical of the USCM resolution and wonder about how “producer responsibility” will actually get implemented on the ground. The USCM resolution describes the “costs paid by local governments to manage products,” traditionally seen as a core governmental function, to be “in effect, subsidies to the producers of hazardous products and of products designed for disposal.” Language like this might reasonably lead one to conclude that the Mayors’ concern isn’t product stewardship, but just reducing local DPW budgets.

Taxes on the cost of disposal might cause manufacturers to change their processes to reduce the amount of waste associated with the end of their products’ life, but what if the most efficient way to handle such waste is still through centralized collection and disposal by municipalities? Perhaps one of my more informed readers will tell me how product stewardship can be operationalized to provide the appropriate incentives on manufacturers to reduce the life-cycle cost of their products while still leaving the handling and disposal of waste products where they can still be performed most efficiently. 

One thought on “Product Stewardship or Just Cost-Shifting?

  1. Taxes on the cost of disposal might cause manufacturers to change their processes to reduce the amount of waste associated with the end of their products’ life, but what if the most efficient way to handle such waste is still through centralized collection and disposal by municipalities? Perhaps one of my more informed readers will tell me how product stewardship can be operationalized to provide the appropriate incentives on manufacturers to reduce the life-cycle cost of their products while still leaving the handling and disposal of waste products where they can still be performed most efficiently.
    This question has not been answered definitively, because not many alternative models are in place.
    The experience with Stewardship Ontario suggests that “centralized collection and disposal by municipalities” varies in its efficiency from product to product, doesn’t it? As we found when we looked at their data, municipal programs are quite efficient for homogenous simple materials like paper, but not for conserving the embodied value in most products and packaging.

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