Reducing harm from waste: Product stewardship


Product stewardship is an environmental management strategy for a product through all stages of its life. From when it is designed, through its production to the end of its life, product stewardship requires all who are involved in the life cycle of a product to to take responsibility for its environmental impact.

A product stewardship scheme is being investigated by the Ministry for the Environment, which is now taking public submissions on the matter. Instead of using the linear economy model which promotes the current destructive and wasteful practices, the circular economy is viewed as a more responsible model. In a linear economy natural resources are taken from the ground, they are made into something in a factory, which is then used by humans before being disposed of. In a circular economy goods are manufactured, the consumer uses them before they get returned to the manufacturer. The manufacturer will then ensure that the valuable components such as wiring, microchips and so forth as well as valuable elements such as gold, copper, silver and palladium which make up the device can be extracted and reused.

This makes logical sense for a range of products that are either resource intensive to make. One such example is aluminium which requires a smelter. These typically require many megawatts of electricity to run so that the smelter pots can melt it. Recycled aluminium is much less energy intensive to melt down and can be reused many times over.

There are a range of environmental and economic benefits that have been identified by the Ministry. There is scope for significant technological innovation, development of new processes and improvements in efficiency that can be found.

It has taken awhile to get this far. The first serious move to address this growing problem was in 2008, when the then Fifth Labour Government introduced the Waste Minimisation Act 2008. It set its purpose down as thus:

The purpose of this Act is to encourage waste minimisation and a decrease in waste disposal in order to—

  •  protect the environment from harm; and
  • provide environmental, social, economic, and cultural benefits.

This seems a rather outdated purpose for the Act. Protecting the environment from harm is obvious, but it could have defined harm, which I have assumed to mean “harmful waste and waste making practices in the natural environment”. The second part is also quite vague and extremely broad. As with the previous part I have tried to be more specific and therefore clarify “environmental” as the natural as well the man made environments (urban areas, significant human activities); “social” as society wide in terms of health, education, and so forth. In terms of economic gains, I look at the potential for energy development, technological innovation and potential export opportunities – New Zealand prides itself on being clean and green but shows reluctance to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the more proper management of waste.

I hope that something serious comes of this. New Zealand cannot afford further dilly dallying on its environmental reputation. Tourists are starting to see us for what we are – a nice nation with a few dirty secrets – and they are saying so to their families and friends when they go home. If we want those people to come as visitors we need to do better. If we want “clean and green” to be honest, we need to do better. This is as good a place as any to start.

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