The future of product stewardship in New Zealand as I see it is a place where stewardship is the norm, not the exception; where end-of-life considerations for the impacts on human and environmental harm sit at the beginning of the design process, not at the end of the supply chain; where industry leads and government supports; and where level playing fields are created by legislation when required. Where consumers reward stewardship with their purchasing power; and where economic and environmental benefit are two sides of the same coin.

Given that we currently lag behind so many in the Americas, Europe and Australia it may seem that we’re looking too far forward but we are seeing the tipping point getting closer.

So, how do we ensure we reach that tipping point at maximum speed?

We need a three-pronged approach – it must be consumer-driven, industry-led, and government-supported. Individually none of these will bring about the required change.

The Consumer

Consumers make a myriad of choices every time they make a purchase and, as we are often told, these choices are becoming increasingly environmentally aware. Informed consumers desire more choices than simply landfill or farm dumps. There is economic benefit for those that can connect with and fulfil this growing demand. As consumers ourselves, we also have an obligation to buy products with a recycling pathway at end-of-life.

However, it’s not a straight line from consumer desire to stewardship. As we’ve seen with end-of-life tyres in New Zealand, paying a fee for a good environmental outcome doesn’t necessarily mean you get one, nor does wanting to buy a mattress with a recycling option mean anything if there is no recycling option available.

Industry at home…

At its most fundamental, product stewardship is manufacturers being held responsible for the use of resources and the potential harm caused by their products. It’s not about end-of-life; rather all phases of its life cycle, from design, manufacture, safety and distribution, to consumption.

Product stewardship can be truly successful where demand is consumer driven, and that demand is keenly felt by the product manufacturer. But it must also be strongly advocated for by owners and directors, and understood to be “the way we do things” throughout the business.

For manufacturers within our borders the impact of their products life cycle can often be more easily understood. They generally enjoy a closer connection with the consumers of their products and have an enhanced sense of doing the right thing in their own back yard. As a result, improved handling practices can be quickly implemented in the supply chain; reduced or refocused consumable expenditure and reduction of landfill waste results in visible economic gains; the social responsibility message to their target markets is stronger. And the result? Economic benefit with beneficial environmental outcomes.

We already see examples where the right drivers from shareholders and managers and the ability to influence consumption habits throughout the supply chain have led to good product stewardship programmes. And in our business, we’re seeing increasing collaboration between competitors and stakeholders.

…and abroad

With the majority of our products manufactured abroad, importers and distributors have an extra set of challenges to meet.

The drivers for overseas manufacturers are quite different. While many operate in countries with various environmental taxes, levies or stewardship requirements, they often do not have to carry forward that responsibility into New Zealand. Pending regulation or the threat of government intervention often puts pressure only on distributors, rather than driving responsibility back up the chain.

As Australia develops more product stewardship programmes covering products also imported here, problems can arise. Emerging complications (and cost) can be posed by differing labelling and recycling messages, as well as differences in packaging types recyclable there but not here. It’s critical that we collaborate and think globally to avoid complicating messages to our own consumers and adding cost burden onto New Zealand distributors or consumers which can’t be moved up their supply chain.

Government

A message from the 2014 WasteMINZ conference was that business has the power to create more change than Government is able to. But there is absolutely a place for government at the stewardship table.

Government’s opportunity is to support product stewardship for our most problematic waste streams. Individual businesses alone are unable to wear the financial risk to invest in processing infrastructure within a disparate market place that also addresses our geographic barriers. This is particularly true where it is currently cheaper and easier to pack end-of-life products into a shipping container and send them offshore. The lack of economically robust, verified onshore processing of difficult to manage waste streams is also restricting stewardship. Government has the ability to level the playing field for all importers and manufacturers of problematic waste and enable demand pull through which allows the market and the infrastructure to develop freely.

A further role that both government and industry must play is to drive procurement policies that create demand pull through for products containing recycled materials produced in New Zealand.

This would be a game changer.

So, where to from here?

Amongst so many challenges, it’s important that we celebrate the positives that we see on a daily basis:

  • There are great examples of existing voluntary stewardship at both an individual company and industry level.
  • There is more awareness of stewardship at all levels – consumer, industry and government – than ever before.
  • There is greater collaboration between industry, and between industry and government to move stewardship forward.
  • Consumers are voting with their purchasing power.
  • Kiwi ingenuity and a desire to create onshore processing is strong.
  • Coming to the party late provides the opportunity to learn from others mistakes and catch up quickly.
  • Government is signalling they are prepared to support mandatory product stewardship though there is no denying that the process needs to be quicker.
  • There are real opportunities for business growth and profit from stewardship – it’s not environmental benefit at the cost of economic returns.

Product stewardship is here, it is growing, and the time when it will become the norm, not the exception, is just around the corner. Are you ready?

Posted by Adele Rose

Read this article in the Revolve magazine May 2015