This article by Annabelle Nilsson from the Australian Earth Laws Alliance puts forward a convincing argument that Australia’s Product Stewardship Act holds much potential to go beyond recycling and consider other product sustainability interventions. Read more ..
Product Re-design Outperforms Recycling – Reforming Australia’s Product Stewardship Legislation to Facilitate a Circular Economy
The innovation and production of electrical products is growing exponentially, particularly with the growing interest in the “internet of things” and “smart cities”. However the initial convenience these products offer is outweighed by the devastating environmental impacts of e-waste.
The circular economy, in its various definitions, is receiving increased attention in Australia due to its potential to address the negative impacts of waste. Yet without adopting strong regulatory measures for the production of optimally durable products, there is a real risk that a circular economy will perpetuate the myth that recycling alone will stop us from destroying our life support systems and health as we continue to increase our consumption of material goods.
In this article, I suggest that the Product Stewardship Act 2011 has the potential to be a strong legislative foundation for ensuring that e-waste is significantly reduced by requiring electronic products to be created to be optimally durable, easily repairable, upgradeable and recyclable. The Act is under review, and after discussing the limits of recycling, I set out a number of recommendations that would enable the Act to play a critical role in managing e-waste in Australia.
The limited impacts of recycling
Recycling often cannot recover or “offset” the high negative environmental impacts that occur throughout the entire life cycle of an electrical product. For example, laptops have high negative environmental impacts during the manufacturing stage that are only partially recoverable by up-to-date recycling. 70% of the energy needed to make and operate a typical laptop computer throughout its life span is used in manufacturing the computer. Carbon emissions attributed to the materials in the laptop computer only comprise 10% of the total. Accordingly, recycling can only recover a small amount of the energy invested in the product.
- creates pollution as a by-product of the energy consumed to collect, sort, clean, separate and reclaim materials;
- does not eliminate the negative environmental impacts from manufacturing and distributing products made from recycled materials;
- does not escape the fact that finite resources eventually become depleted; and
- is vulnerable to market fluctuations, as illustrated by the recent China Sword policy .
Companies who bring electronic products to market have the ability to design out a significant portion of environmental impacts arising throughout the lifecycle of their products.
The Product Stewardship Act 2011
The Product Stewardship Act 2011 (the Act) allocates responsibility to various parties involved in the manufacture and sale of products in Australia, to primarily reduce the impact that:
- products in the Australian market have on the environment, throughout their lives; and
- substances contained in products in the Australian market have on the environment, and on the health and safety of human beings, throughout the lives of those products.
The Act provides a framework for the accreditation of voluntary product stewardship schemes devised by parties to take action to reduce the impacts of products. It also provides the Minister with the power to address the core objects by either requiring particular parties to generate a product stewardship scheme or requiring parties to take particular actions as identified by the Minister.
To date, there are no schemes pursuant to the Act that have improved the lifespan of products. Rather, existing schemes primarily focus on recycling. The Act is currently under review and the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (“AELA”) made a submission to the review recommending, among other things, the following.
All products made, imported and sold in Australia to be made in accordance with product standards to make products optimally durable, upgradeable, easily repairable and recyclable where technically possible. Such standards can operate to facilitate the repair of products by consumers and independent repair professionals.
All Australian businesses that manufacture and provide products should be required to apply mandatory sustainability standards into their business practices and report on how it does so. This includes providing higher quality products with longer life cycles. There are two existing international standards, ISO TR 14062 (2002) and ISO 26000 that can be used in his regard.
A new advisory group should be established and comprised of various stakeholder representatives, including civil society and non-government organisations, and relevant experts. The expertise required on the advisory group would include: engineering, product design, industrial ecology, ethics and Earth systems science. The role of the advisory group would be to advise the Minister, including the following matters:
- identifying products that significantly harm the environment and people;
- assessing the efficacy of proposed schemes under the Act;
- assessing existing, and developing new, design standards; and
- routinely reviewing the suitability of applicable design standards in light of developments in technology and the state of the natural environment.
In addition, to meet stronger sustainability outcomes, AELA also recommended broader governance reform so that our production and consumption practices are limited within our environment’s ability to support all living beings to thrive. Recommendations included the following:
Replace the concept of Ecologically Sustainable Development, which balances the needs of the environment with those of the economy and society, with Planetary Boundaries. Planetary Boundaries refers to the healthy parameters which humanity needs to operate within, to survive into the future.
Create governance systems that place ecological integrity and the health of the natural environment as the foundational principles for all other governance and economic structures.
Adopt bioregional ecological and economic governance models, in order to create practical ways for communities to understand ecological limits, and develop consumption and production models that fit within the ecological limits of their bioregion.
To live within ecological limits, Australia’s legal system and world view needs to acknowledge the primary importance of the living world. One of the ways this can be achieved is by supporting rights of nature law reform. The right for natural communities and ecosystems to exist, to habitat, to thrive and evolve should be at the forefront of any decisions made under the legislation.
The above recommended reforms are essential if we are to become better custodians of the natural world, and reduce our impact on the very life support systems that sustain us.
A copy of AELA’s submission to the review of the Act is available here.
Information about AELA’s work assisting communities to develop bioregional ecological and economic governance models can be found here.
 Deng, L., Babbitt, C.W., Williams, E.D., (2011), “Economic-balance hybrid LCA extended with uncertainty analysis: case study of a laptop computer”, Journal of Cleaner Production, 19:11, July 2011, pp., 1198-1206, p. 1203. See also Arizona State University (2011), ‘Factory is where our computers eat up most energy’, Phys.org, https://phys.org/news/2011-04-factory-energy.html#jCp, accessed 11 May 2018.
 Cooper, T. (1994), Beyond recycling: The longer life option, London: The New Economics Foundation, p.1., https://www.researchgate.net/publication/245584324_Beyond_recycling_the_longer_life_option, accessed 6 June 2018. See also, Lepawsky, J., ‘Beyond recycling: solving e-waste problems must include designers and consumers’, The Conversation, accessed 2 May 2018, https://theconversation.com/beyond-recycling-solving-e-waste-problems-must-include-designers-and-consumers-41719.
 Ritchie, M., China’s National Sword is cutting deep in the recycling sector, InsideWaste, February/March 2018, accessed on 4 May 2018 from Parliament of Australia webpage at https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/WasteandRecycling/Additional_Documents.
 For example, the Federal Government’s National Waste Report identifies that 70%-90% of a product’s environmental and economic impacts are determined at the design stage. See RMIT University, Green Design Policy Review: Analysis Report, Report to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, February 2009, p.8., cited in Environment, Heritage Protection Council (EPBC) 2010, National Waste Report, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Australian Government, http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/national-waste-policy/national-waste-reports/national-waste-report-2010. Accessed 9 May 2018, p.254.