The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) in Boston’s Back Bay is a national non-profit organization with a mission to change the way we pay for waste management and recycling in this country. The concept behind product stewardship is simple—people who benefit from the sale and use of a product should be responsible for the cost of managing that product when the consumer disposes of it. The most commonly discussed form of product stewardship is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which requires companies to pay some or all of the costs associated with safely managing their products at their end of life. Though many models exist, EPR programs typically involve the creation of an industry-funded stewardship organization that helps businesses recycle the products they produce. Seen by many as a fairer way to pay for recycling, EPR also gives companies an incentive to design and sell products that can easily and cheaply be recycled.
In the past few decades, the EPR approach has caught on all over the world. EPR programs in the United States are typically run at the state level and focus on items that are bulky, dangerous or toxic. Many states have EPR programs for electronic waste, products that contain mercury (e.g., thermostats, auto switches, and fluorescent lights), paint, and batteries. While PSI sees this as a starting point, these are by no means the only products that can benefit from EPR. Five Canadian provinces and the European Union apply EPR to commonplace items like packaging waste. PSI hopes to expand the number of US states that employ EPR and the number of product categories that are covered by EPR programs.
Having worked at PSI as an intern since September of 2012, I have had a chance to become familiar with the Institute’s work nationwide. For a small organization with just 8 full-time employees, the scope of PSI’s work is impressive. Its work includes legislative tracking, advocacy, policy research and evaluation, designing and running pilot projects, and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogs. PSI is involved with more than 15 product categories, including packaging, paint, electronics, pharmaceuticals, phonebooks, mattresses, and products containing mercury. To give a sense of the scope of PSI’s work, as an intern I am currently assisting in a research project on policy best practices for packaging EPR in Europe and Canada, as well as helping with the design and implementation of a program to increase the number of mercury switches that are recovered from automobiles in Illinois.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Scott Cassel, the founder and CEO of PSI to get a sense of how PSI got started and where the movement is headed. Below are the highlights of our conversation.
Where did the idea for PSI come from and how did PSI get started?
The idea came about in the 1990s when Scott was Director of Waste Policy and Planning at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and developed the first state plan for household hazardous waste. Because of a lack of funding at the state and municipal level only a small percentage of products were being collected. Scott realized that success at collecting household hazardous waste would break the banks of communities and that a new funding model was needed. At the same time, Scott was president of the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association and learned about successful EPR programs in British Columbia. Scott developed a business plan for an organization to promote EPR in the US and was given roughly three years of seed money by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and space at UMass Lowell. PSI was founded in 2000 and was conceived as an organization that would be a voice for state and local governments on EPR. It has expanded into nearly 100 formal partnerships with companies, organizations (including environmental), universities, and non-US governments. After 4 years at UMass Lowell, PSI moved first to Newbury Street and then to its present location on Stanhope Street in Back Bay.
How has the product stewardship landscape changed since PSI was founded? Has PSI’s role changed since then?
There has been increasing recognition that EPR is not just for toxics and that we need to look at products from a lifecycle perspective. It is easy to see the value of EPR for toxic products and for products such as carpet and mattresses that have high disposal costs for municipalities, but there are actually very few products that cannot fit under the EPR umbrella if you view it from a lifecycle perspective. All products have an impact on the environment, and we need to look broadly at the mining, manufacture, use, transportation, and post-consumer management to really get the full understanding of which products should be viewed as priorities from an environmental impact perspective. With 67 EPR laws in 32 states, the EPR movement has momentum and companies are beginning to see the writing on the wall. Companies are also beginning to realize that regulation can level the playing field and eliminate free rider problems in a way that voluntary initiatives cannot.
One place where voluntary action has been successful has been with retailers, who are realizing that serving as collection points can draw in customers and increase brand loyalty. Staples developed its computer take back program after a successful 6-week pilot project with PSI. They initially charged a $10 fee, but were eventually able to collect and recycle computers for no charge due to an increased market for scrap electronics. This program has proved highly successful, and has been emulated by Best Buy, Office Depot and Office Max.
What do you consider to be PSI’s major accomplishments?
One is the Staples program, which was the first time a retailer became involved in computer take-back. In 2004, retailers did not want to participate in the national electronics dialogue. Staples stepped forward and worked with PSI to develop the program, which became a well-known success and showed that retailers could take back computers at a low cost. Store employees loved it, and customers showed increased brand loyalty.
A second major accomplishment was a national agreement reached with the paint industry to fund the collection of leftover paint. Over 9 months of dialog, PSI reached an agreement with the industry. After conducting 8 projects over the next two years, the paint industry was convinced to take full responsibility. This showed that it was possible to work with, rather than against, industry on EPR.
EPR has grown tremendously over the past decade, with 67 EPR laws now in place across the country. PSI has thousands of members, including 47 state memberships at the secretary, commissioner or director level. PSI has built a broad-based coalition and it is clear that EPR is not going away. There is a need to take stock and evaluate programs to be sure that they are working to create jobs, save money for governments, increase recycling rates and allocate costs fairly.
How do you see the EPR/product stewardship landscape in America changing in the next few years? Do you anticipate any changes in PSI’s role?
We will see more laws, better laws, and greater justification for the laws. We will gain a better understanding of how EPR influences product design. We will come to better understand the lifecycle impacts of products, allowing us to better target products for EPR programs and necessary voluntary initiatives. There will also be consolidation, both of collection systems and of stewardship organizations, as is happening in Canada and Europe already.
There is also a possibility of EPR legislation happening at the federal level. At the moment, EPR is still new in the US and is experiencing pushback from industry. This will change once industry comes to accept that EPR is here to stay. Once enough state laws are in place, we could see a tipping point where federal legislation is passed. On the other hand, many stewardship organizations are nervous about the operational challenges of rolling out an EPR program nationally and may resist federal legislation. In addition, a federal program would still need to be implemented at the state level.
We will also see movement toward harmonization of EPR programs at the national and international levels, though this will be a very difficult task. Even within a country or region there are many different models for how EPR programs can be set up and managed, but as we gain experience and understanding of best practices we should be able to begin to move toward more standard models.