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E-Waste – The Path to Product Stewardship

01 May 2011

E-waste continues to grow as one of New Zealand, and the globe’s, largest waste streams.  It does not appear that we are any closer, as a nation, to a regulated product stewardship scheme with government and industry working together. Our counterparts across the ditch have got their act together and are steaming ahead towards a Product Stewardship Bill consisting of voluntary, co-regulatory and mandatory schemes. This includes televisions and computer e-waste and is expected to be in place before the end of 2011.Where does this leave us? Well, it’s not all bad news and there may be an opportunity here and there for channel members to make their mark prior to formal legislation. Like all other first world countries we have to progress towards product stewardship–and soon. As legislation is not on the horizon here yet, we need collaboration between various parties and some good Kiwi ingenuity to provide an interim solution. This involves collaboration between manufacturers (either directly or via their channel partner), business users of electronic products in the workplace, consumers of electronic products in homes and local and central government.  Everyone will have to feel a bit of the pain, but it will help pave the road to product stewardship. In the business to business environment, manufacturers or their New Zealand channel partners should be taking voluntary responsibility for the end of life goods by offering take-back programmes through their own distribution channels or by outsourcing to reputable third party recyclers, even if it marginally increases the price of goods sold or leased. There are already good, well established examples of this in New Zealand, including Konica Minolta, who have a national recycling programme in place.  Most of this cost is usually "worn” by the manufacturer or channel partner, but can be used as a marketing tool to target and attract a growing trend of environmentally friendly customers or as an incentive to repeat purchase the same brand – for example, take back the old model for responsible recycling.Taking Responsibility Responsible business users of electronic products should be asking their suppliers if the manufacturer has a product stewardship scheme or take back programme in place and this should influence their procurement strategies and tender processes.  The good news is that where there is no programme established, business users of electronics are starting to take responsibility for their own assets before or when they die (the assets that is). These options include selling good used equipment to refurbishing companies for re-sale or arranging the recycling directly with recyclers for some charges. Chevron and Dick Smith are examples of good corporate citizens who have an environmental conscience. Others may be looking to their channel partners for solutions.The business to consumer channel is where some intensive care is required. The bulk of New Zealand consumers are sadly unaware that there are alternatives to their end of life computers, monitors and handheld devices ending up in our landfills. The result of this is some toxic and/or hazardous substances not being safely recovered and managed. Due to the absence of product stewardship, there are some manufacturers, retailers and channel partners starting to step forward and offer consumers solutions. However they are in the minority and some of these internationally offered programmes only provide lip service with very little follow through because it’s not required by legislation. Fortunately, there are now options available, where consumers can drop off e-waste conveniently and directly at places they are familiar with, including retail outlets, community group recycling centres and recognised council-owned transfer stations. These allow electronic waste to be diverted from landfill and go to reputable, environmentally friendly recyclers. An example of this is RCN e-Cycle, the newly launched national project, partly funded by the Ministry for the Environment. This is a good example of government, community groups and business taking responsibility and providing an environmental solution, while creating employment. There is  an opportunity for channel partners to get involved and participate in this reverse logistics process and generate customer loyalty and develop goodwill in their respective markets. Unfortunately, currently  these recycling costs are primarily for the consumers own account, but a number of councils are taking the lead and subsidising some of these costs.  Rotorua and Kaitaia are leading the council race, with lots more starting places on the grid available. Maybe this is a caretaking role which provides a working infrastructure, as we all eagerly await the birth of legislated, formal product stewardship.With urban mining for precious metals becoming more of a reality in electronic items, there are more and more recycling solutions being offered onshore and internationally. Positives include recycling plants and methods becoming more sophisticated. E-waste handling  and recycling standards are being drawn up and best practice recyclers will comply. The infrastructure and expertise are available. Education and awareness for business and consumer markets is also critical, but this will be achieved.The negatives include local "cowboy” recyclers harvesting components of value and dumping the rest and product ending up in third world non-regulated recycling environments. Opportunities for them to exploit businesses and consumers will continue until legislation is applied. The biggest challenge for industry to be successful in product stewardship will be to get all players in the electronics industry to buy in, with "one version of the truth” and one set of rules appling.  This requires safety net regulation to involve the entire industry including smaller white box distributors and channel players. There is a path to product stewardship ahead, we just have to manage some obstacles along the way and look forward to government and industry cooperation.