Many environmentally-aware product manufacturers participate in product stewardship schemes, where those manufacturers will take products back when they reach the end of their useful lives on behalf of the customer.
These products are then typically recycled or reclaimed and transformed into various new products. At the very least they are disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner. This results in useful materials coming back into circulation and being diverted away from landfill.
In order for these schemes to be effective, though, they need to be utilised. A recent story on The Fifth Estate highlighted the challenges faced by product manufacturers and sustainability advocates in ensuring that people actually take advantage of the schemes in place. For example, manufacturers may have difficulty accessing or operating take back programs, and there is currently little regulation from industry to ensure products are not ending up in landfill despite a manufacturer's participation in sustainable product stewardship.
So what does a successful product stewardship scheme look like? Consider the example of carpet manufacturer Shaw Contract Group. The company claims to recycle up to 45 million kilograms of carpet from around the world annually, which is processed through a range of recycling options and reclaimed into raw materials for use in new carpet products and in other industries.
Shaw has only been in Australia for seven years, but has sent back over 9,000 kilograms of stock to their recycling facilities in the USA from a combination of reclaimed projects, as well as an additional 9,000 kilograms of carpet tiles from a New Zealand university destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake.
Encouraging the use of take back schemes can be a challenge where there is a lack of communication between the manufacturer, the customer, and a building's future managers. Sometimes fixing this issue can be as simple as including disposal instructions on the product itself.
Shaw's EcoWorx carpet tiles, for instance, are printed with a phone number on the underside, directing anyone who happens to be taking them out of a space to contact the company to arrange recycling. Incorporating these instructions into the product itself is a good step toward ensuring the tiles are recycled, alerting even those who may be unaware of a manufacturer's take-back policies that there is a scheme in place for them to take advantage of.
Ultimately, what the industry needs is better regulation and enforcement of more sustainable disposal methods. Australia lacks adequate laws and regulations for handling products at the end of their lives, and currently there are no systematic checks in place to ensure products are disposed of responsibly. Such legislation would not completely solve the problem - after all, only 35 per cent of discarded e-waste in Europe made its way to the official collection and recycling systems despite being covered under EU legislation - but it would still go a long way.
Australia needs more robust requirements for product disposal, higher standards for product manufacture to ensure recycling and reclamation is made easier, and greater capacity to run efficient recycling schemes. Third-party certification schemes, such as the Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) ecolabel, often require product stewardship arrangements to be in place before a product can be certified, but this only forms one part of the overall process. We also need better communication between installers and those dismantling a fitout to keep good materials out of landfill.
The schemes are in place - we just need to use them.