I get so frustrated when I read and participate in discussions where the term “product stewardship” is equated with “extended producer responsibility” which really means the product manufacturer should have to pay for product take back at the end of its life. (example: here)

Product Stewardship is a concept fleshed out by chemical manufacturers in developing the Responsible Care (R) program that raised the bar for companies to look at the life cycle management of the chemicals and products they manufacture and to work with parties in the entire chain of commerce to achieve safe management of chemicals. Product Stewardship is about looking at all the associated environmental (including energy use), health and safety (EHS) issues presented by the processes and chemicals used in creating, distributing, using, recovery and ultimate disposal of a product. It is about optimizing for the best risk management throughout the life cycle of a product.

Product Stewardship is a shared responsibility of everyone who benefits from the product. The manufacturer of a commercial product does not control everyone in the stream of commerce. Nor does he necessarily know what the most efficient and effective management techniques are for each player. What he can do is manage his own operations based on the best information on potential EHS risks he can acquire from suppliers, academia, government, distributors, users, treatment/disposal operators and his own research. He is then responsible for passing on adequate information upstream and downstream so that others can properly manage risks. He is also responsible for seeking and responding to new information. Finally, he is responsible for continually looking for the most optimum way to manage and reduce risks. Likewise, those who are involved at each stage of the life cycle of a product are responsible for managing risks from their activities, passing appropriate information to the next in the chain and continually improving their own risk management.

Those who focus on only the end of life management of a product are not supporting the best life cycle management approach. Frankly, they seldom give a hoot for the product and its benefits. Or if they do benefit as end users, they believe it should be the producer's problem and cost, not theirs. Everyone says "not me" - a common theme in today's society. It should be those fat cat capitalist chemical companies who should pay. But, oh, they are laying off people now too. Maybe not so fat anymore.... Maybe there's a reason they squawk when their products and livelihoods are threatened. Maybe they are worried about finding a sustainable solution.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to life cycle management. Each product and chain of commerce is unique in the problems, potential solutions and feasibility it presents.

Mandatory product take-back requirements may cause more problems than they cure - transportation and energy costs in collection and recovery operations, lack of customers for recycled materials, unnecessary exposures in recycling operations to name a few. But for some products - like high energy content, easily recycled aluminum cans - bins and curbside recycling is great. If you can't find a steady supply of recycled raw material, what do you do to stay green?

Designing "green" products is a laudable goal and should be done where it makes life cycle sense. But at what cost in performance? If it goes down the drain (a cleaner) and it works fine for the purpose and biodegrades rapidly, great! If the "green" product takes twice as much to get a poorer result and will only biodegrade in a compost that few people will bother with, is it really "green"? Can we scale it up to meet our needs without causing more problems (see corn-based ethanol)?

How much should the government subsidize greener alternatives? Why should we believe a group of government bureaucrats can dictate a silver bullet?

Product stewardship is a way of thinking and making value-based decisions, not a prescription for specific activities. Product stewardship should be an ongoing process that seeks more sustainable solutions for customer needs. It relies on innovation and continuous consideration of new information on needs and environmental, health and safety impacts. It's not something to be legislated. Don't turn it into a checklist.

We should be teaching our children and ourselves how to think with a holistic systems viewpoint and work with others because we all have shared responsibility to find the best solutions we can and continually improve our ability to meet our needs without unintended consequences to ourselves and future generations.


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