Basic Information Topics
Product stewardship is a product-centered approach to environmental protection. Also known as extended product responsibility (EPR), product stewardship calls on those in the product life cycle—manufacturers, retailers, users, and disposers—to share responsibility for reducing the environmental impacts of products.
Product stewardship recognizes that product manufacturers must take on new responsibilities to reduce the environmental footprint of their products. However, real change cannot always be achieved by producers acting alone: retailers, consumers, and the existing waste management infrastructure need to help to provide the most workable and cost-effective solutions. Solutions and roles will vary from one product system to another.
In most cases, manufacturers have the greatest ability, and therefore the greatest responsibility, to reduce the environmental impacts of their products. Companies that are accepting the challenge are recognizing that product stewardship also represents a substantial business opportunity. By rethinking their products, their relationships with the supply chain, and the ultimate customer, some manufacturers are dramatically increasing their productivity, reducing costs, fostering product and market innovation, and providing customers with more value at less environmental impact. Reducing use of toxic substances, designing for reuse and recyclability, and creating takeback programs are just a few of the many opportunities for companies to become better environmental stewards of their products. In the 21st century, forward-thinking businesses have recognized that demonstrated corporate citizenship and maximum resource productivity are essential components to creating competitive advantage and increasing shareholder wealth.
As the sector with the closest ties to consumers, retailers are one of the gateways to product stewardship. From preferring product providers who offer greater environmental performance, to educating the consumer on how to choose environmentally preferable products, to enabling consumer return of products for recycling, retailers are an integral part of the product stewardship revolution.
All products are designed with a consumer in mind. Ultimately, it is the consumer who makes the choice between competing products and who must use and dispose of products responsibly. Without consumer engagement in product stewardship, there is no “closing the loop.” Consumers must make responsible buying choices which consider environmental impacts. They must use products safely and efficiently. Finally, they must take the extra steps to recycle products that they no longer need.
Solid waste programs in the United States are primarily managed at the state and local level. Thus, state and local governments are essential to fostering product stewardship, especially as it relates to waste management. A growing number of progressive states are incorporating product stewardship objectives into their solid waste master plans, and undertaking cooperative efforts with manufacturers, retailers and others to increase recycling of discarded products. More and more states are developing take back mandates for selected products (especially electronics, but other products are under consideration as well). State and local procurement officials are also encouraging product stewardship innovations through their purchasing programs. In many cases, states need to work with their neighboring states to develop cost-effective approaches to handling problem products and wastes.
The Federal government shares responsibility for increasing product stewardship as well. At this time, Federal statutory authority to control the environmental impacts of product systems is limited. However, EPA actively facilitates coordination and collaboration among states, local governments, industry, and non-governmental organizations on these issues. As the nation's largest single consumer, Federal agencies are using their market leverage to incentivize the development of products with stronger environmental attributes.EPA's Product Stewardship program has primarily focused on end-of-life considerations as one means of encouraging more environmentally conscious design and greater resource conservation. However to address the full range of product lifecycle issues, the Product Stewardship program also works with other EPA programs, as well as various public- and private-sector stakeholders, to promote "greener" design, greener product standards, and greener purchasing practices.