Time to get Australia’s product stewardship back on track

Product stewardship is an effective way to deliver cost effective solutions that minimise the impact of products, goods and materials on the environment and human health, writes Rose Read, CEO of the NWRIC.

Product stewardship is also an important tool that can drive resource recovery and the circular economy in Australia.

What exactly is product stewardship? Simply producers take responsibility to minimise the human health and environmental impacts of their products throughout their complete life cycle.

From designing out waste to recycling at the end of life and everything in between. Producers, manufacturers, brands and/or retailers take the primary responsibility and work with their supply chains (upstream and downstream) and customers to minimise harm to human health and the environment.

Product stewardship has been part of Australia’s regulatory framework since the late 1990’s. However, it has had a very stop and start history due to inconsistent government willingness to put in place the necessary regulatory and policy frameworks essential to make producer responsibility possible.

From 1998 through to 2001 there was a flurry of regulatory and voluntary activity with the establishment of the Used Packaging National Environment Protection Measure in 1998 and the Product Stewardship (Oil) Act in 2000.

At the same time industry led voluntary schemes for mobile phones (MobileMuster) and farm chemical containers (DrumMuster) kicked off. Meanwhile, various pilot take-back projects started for select IT equipment and televisions. As part of its 2001 Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Act, the NSW Government introduced a provision to establish extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes in NSW.

However, for the next decade little progress was made in addressing the growing impacts of products on the environment due to governments’ ongoing preference for voluntary, industry-led product stewardship programs.

Fortunately, in 2011 the Federal Government took the lead, stepped up and introduced the Product Stewardship Act, which is a robust piece of legislation that provides a framework for government and industry to reduce the impacts of products on the environment and society.

The first suite of products to be addressed under the Act were televisions, computers, printers and accessories. Within 12 months the Product Stewardship (Television and Computers) Regulation was passed establishing the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) requiring all companies who import or manufacture these products in Australia to provide free, reasonable accessible collection services, achieve agreed collection and recovery targets.

The result, within five years collection rates jumped from 18% (under sporadic voluntary programs) to 60%. Australia’s e-waste collection and recycling capacity increased, creating jobs and revenue for Australia at minimal cost to local councils, state or federal governments. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of tonnes of electronic waste being diverted from landfills. With, more than 90% of the materials recovered to an Australian Standard for reuse.

Unfortunately, though, the impetus government for smart, cost effective regulation to create a level playing field for producers was short lived. As eight years on all we have is a suite of poor performing, partly industry funded, voluntary schemes for tyres, paint, printer cartridges, and mattresses.

Plus, we still don’t have any form of producer responsibility scheme for batteries, other electronics or photovoltaics. Even though these products have been on the product priority list for up to six years.

But fingers crossed, with the new Federal Government’s election commitment of $20 million for product stewardship the tide is changing. However, we have yet to hear from the government as to how it will invest these funds. Let alone what the outcomes from the Product Stewardship Act Review are, which was initiated way back in 2017.

So, here are a few suggestions to help them get things moving.

Do not change the objects of the Act. They are fine. Just get on and implement them.

Using regulation effectively and efficiently
Free riding is the biggest barrier to getting producer stewardship schemes up and running. To solve this problem, amend the Act so that when a product is placed on the priority list all organisations who put those products in to the Australia market must either:

1. register and establish a voluntary accredited scheme either as part of the government’s process or on their own within a given timeframe, or

2. be a member of an existing accredited voluntary scheme.

If not, they will be required to pay an agreed advance recycling fee for each unit placed on the market to the Product Stewardship Fund, which will be used to support local and state government activity in recovering and dealing with the product.

To ensure the APCO packaging targets are met within the required timeframes, establish a regulation under the Act that replaces the Used Packaging NEPM and call out these targets, with penalties similar to the NTCRS for failure to meet the targets.

Getting the priorities right
Batteries and photovoltaics, given the diversity of both these industries free rider regulation needs to be put in place. A voluntary approach will not work. Therefore, resources should be applied to establish the necessary regulations under the Act and assist the industry in getting these two schemes up and running by the end of 2020.

Expand the scope of the NTCRS to include all electronics. The ACT, SA and Victoria have all banned e-waste from landfills. This means the cost of collecting and processing these products is unfairly being borne by local councils and state governments rather than the producers and users.

Making Voluntary Accreditation Meaningful
Amend the voluntary accreditation system to a three-tiered approach:

Tier 1 – companies register to develop a voluntary scheme within 12 months that includes a three-year product stewardship business plan.

Tier 2 – companies apply for accreditation by submitting a three-year product stewardship business plan.

Tier 3 – companies apply for renewal of accreditation by submitting a five- year product stewardship business plan.

At each Tier the Federal Government will provide funding (on a dollar for dollar basis) and/or in-kind resources for any of the following activities – material flow analysis, risk assessment, cost sharing agreements, market development, communications, governance compliance requirements, industry and stakeholder engagement, business planning assistance. As well as government accreditation and access to product stewardship logo.

The first priority would be to have the current suite of voluntary programs for tyres (TSA), paint (Paint Back), farm chemical drums (DrumMuster, ChemClear), printer cartridges (Cartridges for Planet Ark), soft plastics (Redcycle) become accredited. Why? To increase industry participation, improve performance and transparency and to promote them to the community.

The second priority would be to encourage other companies and industries to apply to become accredited through direct approaches and greater engagement with industry.

It’s time for the new Minister for Environment and Energy and her Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management to turn their election promises into action. It’s also time for state and territory governments to get behind the federal government’s product stewardship commitment by contributing matching dollars to the National Product Stewardship Fund.

If the federal government doesn’t get going soon waste will continue to be exported. Landfills will fill up with products that leach potentially harmful substances. Stockpiles and risk of fires will continue to grow due to lack of markets and infrastructure to process products. Batteries will continue contaminate kerbside bins, causing explosions and fires, putting recyclers and infrastructure at risk. Potentially recyclable, rare and valuable resources will be lost.

This article first appeared in Waste Management Review, October 2019