Protecting brand agency and enabling design for sustainability

Protecting brand agency and enabling design for sustainability

E-waste (discarded products with a battery or plug) has been one of the fastest growing waste streams globally since the turn of the century. A recent report found that e-waste will have doubled in the last 16 years alone.

This is concerning on two fronts:

  1. a significant volume of waste ends up in our landfills;
  2. there is a substantial loss of finite and valuable resources that we need to keep circulating in the economy.

Much of this churn is driven by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and limited options for repair. Regardless, the outcome is of concern to the community, industry and governments.

In 2011 the Australian government had the foresight to take action to tackle the growing mountain of e-waste when it established the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS). The scheme has delivered many positive results including a sustained rise in the recycling rate of obsolete television and computer equipment. These gains have come through a shared responsibility framework under which brands (liable parties) take responsibility for continuous improvements. Having this responsibility and supporting the key decisions to driving sustainable outcome advances is what we refer to as brand agency. This agency, which brands currently enjoy under the Australian scheme, has been vital in delivering not only increased recovery but also higher recycling standards.

The Federal Government is now looking to build further on these successes by increasing the categories of electrical products (e-products) that will be obligated to be recycled. This includes expanding the scheme, so it captures small electrical and electronic equipment and solar photovoltaic (PV) system. The proposed design will also broaden its focus beyond end-of-life product recycling. The need is there, and the time is right for this expansion.

Whilst the draft proposal for scheme expansion has many positives it also proposes that a single scheme administrator will oversee the full e-waste recycling system. Under the mechanics of this proposal, brands will pay a fixed fee to a scheme administrator to discharge their liability but will have no say on which recyclers will manage their end-of-life product recycling liability. This therefore diminishes the brand’s agency.


What happens when brands and equipment manufacturers lose control over the “recycling decision”?

When the role of brands and equipment manufacturers in a product stewardship scheme is purely restricted to being a financial relationship through which they discharge a legal obligation, it undermines their ability to act as a “product steward” in any meaningful way. A likely consequence is that the brands who are funding the scheme, will lose interest in seeing the scheme as a vehicle for their own stewardship or brand promotion and will see it simply as a tax to be kept at a minimum – the result being sub-optimal outcomes.

Furthermore, decoupling the relationship between brands and Co-Regulatory Arrangements also serves to erode a critical feedback loop that currently exist between end-of-life product managers and equipment manufacturers.


How do we get better e-stewardship outcomes in Australia?

Enabling brands to retain agency over the stewardship of their products supports both a requisite level of flexibility and competition. In terms of competition, this centers on how brands make stewardship decisions that differentiate their products in the marketplace, ranging from aspects such as raising the bar of recycling standards through to design for recyclability and sustainability credentials of the products.

When there is an effective relationship between brands and end-of-life products managers, the interaction plays an important role in informing design for recyclability. The resulting benefits can translate to superior economic, environmental, and social outcomes. By way of example, members of the Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform (ANZRP) – a conglomerate of Australia’s leading technology brands – has elected to underwrite improved national recycling infrastructure through investment in the Center for Regenerative Design & Collaboration Australia (CRDC Australia) RESIN8™ plant in Victoria. RESIN8 is now providing a domestic solution for plastics that emanate from the processing of obsolete technology equipment and which was previously sent offshore for processing or directed to waste-to-energy.