Time to Get Serious About Product Stewardship

May 1, 2010
The RPA challenges the material handling industry to support sustainability and extended producer responsibility.

The Reusable Packaging Association's (RPA) board of directors has adopted an official policy supporting product stewardship and extended producer responsibility (EPR). The RPA is embracing this important issue because our goal is to promote the value and expansion of reusable materials as preferred packaging solutions across supply chains, private or public.

Product stewardship, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a product-centered approach to environmental protection. Also known as EPR, “product stewardship calls on those in the product life cycle — manufacturers, retailers, users and disposers — to share responsibility for reducing the environmental impacts of products.” The primary role and responsibility is placed with the producer to make development and marketing decisions that will reduce the environmental footprint of their products.

In support of EPA's efforts, many state and local jurisdictions have worked together to establish the following five framework principles for product stewardship:

  1. Producer responsibility;
  2. Shared responsibilities with retail, government and consumer participants;
  3. Governance of activities;
  4. Financing of programs;
  5. Environmental considerations.

This issue of producer responsibility is just emerging; however, it is steadily gaining support. Just recently, for instance, the Maine Merchant's Association voiced its support for the EPR framework legislation that is now awaiting the Governor's signature in that state. In Canada, legislation is gaining ground in various provinces, while EPR has already become prevalent in Europe.

EPR is a long-term issue that will be discussed and developed over time. However, we believe it is important to take a position now and voice our willingness as an association to be involved in discussions and help shape legislation as it is developed.

We support these principles because it is the first step in establishing a common public policy, or framework, to discuss and debate the best ways to handle the resources used for moving products in commerce. We think this shared common goal can benefit manufacturers of packaging products, the consumers who benefit from the packaged products and government entities that must manage the waste that is generated.

Understanding how best to use and manage our natural resources and limit waste, while still delivering the products and services that make us one of the most productive societies in the world, is indeed a challenge. We know that designing and creating reusable products from whatever materials are deemed most appropriate for a particular application, and managing these products throughout their lifecycles, is both good business and consistent with good product stewardship.

As an industry, we stake our economic viability on the belief that products should have multiple uses, should be recoverable, and when their usefulness comes to an end, they should be recycled to create a new product. As an association, we also believe reusable packaging is consistent with the framework principles for product stewardship.

One of the drivers behind EPR is to shift the responsibility of dealing with waste away from municipalities and government to the producers. EPR is based on the idea that manufacturers can create packaging that is less wasteful and easier to recycle. Government entities are putting manufacturers on alert that they need to start making significant changes in their packaging. The member companies of the RPA are already addressing this issue by embracing reusable packaging. We are already taking packaging back into the supply chain for reuse, rather than sending it to landfills.

Having entered this debate, we do, however, have one caveat. As federal, state and local governments move to embrace these principles in laws and regulation, we think it is both practical and prudent to review each approach on a case-by-case basis. The ultimate goal here is not to raise revenue nor punish the manufacturers of the packaging that is so critical to our economic sustainability. Rather, it is to create a sustainable strategy that does not hamper the efficient flow of products and services in commerce and a common policy that rewards innovative approaches and discourages those that waste resources and damage the environment.

We need to continually remind consumers, legislators and others that packaging is a necessity. It is essential for moving goods throughout the supply chain and into the hands of the consumer. Effective packaging actually reduces waste by protecting products that would otherwise end up in landfills if they were damaged. Pitting one side against the other in this debate is not in the best interests of our economy or our children's future. Seeking working solutions to the very real problems of waste and environmental degradation are at the very root of this debate.

Reusable packaging is a part of the solution and should be part of any company's sustainable packaging strategy. It's not the only solution, but it does deserve a closer look in the discussion of how to move forward. Recently, for instance, the RPA joined the California Product Stewardship Council as a partner by signing a pledge of support and adopting their principles of stewardship.

We don't think it makes good business sense to stand on the sidelines and let others influence our future without being part of the discussion. We hope this ongoing discussion spurs further innovations and solutions that are critical to creating a sustainable economic future.

Jon Kalin is chairman of the board of the Reusable Packaging Association, as well as sales and marketing manager for Rehrig Pacific Co., a plastic pallet and container manufacturer.

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