Product Design and Producer Responsibility

Recycling has come a long way here in Washington.  Our statewide recycling rate was 45% in 2008.  Curbside recycling programs are accessible to most single-family residences in the state and cover many products and packaging.  Food waste composting is expanding rapidly.

But we’re not done yet.  Recycling programs have not yet been established for many products.  And much that we count as recycled is actually “downcycled.”  Writing paper recycled into tissues will, after one more use, go to the landfill or incinerator.  Plastic soda containers made into park benches, after one more use (albeit a longer one), are destined for the same fate.  Getting one more use from a material is good, but it’s not good enough.  In addition, many products contain toxics, making recycling more challenging and risky.  Not just products like pesticides and antifreeze, but also products like the cushions we sit on and the cell phones we use.

Why aren’t more materials in products used over and over again?  And why aren’t more products recyclable?  A big part of the answer is simply this:  They aren’t designed to be. 

Right now, producers design and manufacture products.  But local governments are responsible for ensuring recycling or disposal for those products.  The producers are not typically involved, and there is no communication between the recyclers and the producers. By engaging producers in the recycling of the products they make, a connection is made between product design and product recycling. This gives producers a financial incentive and information about designing products that are greener – less toxic, longer lasting and more recyclable.

Zero Waste Washington’s 2002 survey on electronics indicated that over 90% of consumers agree that manufacturers of electronic products should be responsible for designing them to be easily recyclable and less toxic, and that when electronic products contain toxic lead and mercury, manufacturers should provide a safe and convenient way to recycle them.

For greener products, we must look upstream to the start of the products’ life and to the manufacturers who design the products.  Governments, recycling companies, and solid waste haulers have worked hard to make recycling successful. We citizens have done our part, too.  But we can’t change the design of products.  That’s a job that only manufacturers can do.

Last Updated (Monday, 26 July 2010 09:33)