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Real Product Sustainability Requires a Lifecycle Approach

December 19, 2011

Every two weeks, PSI members and partners receive updates on product stewardship news from around the world. A recent NY Times article on battery recycling caught my attention because it illustrated how product sustainability requires a full lifecycle perspective — not only a focus on end of life. The December 8 front-page story described how processing methods used at a Mexican plant for recycling vehicle and industrial batteries from the U.S. are poisoning workers and citizens. The batteries are recovered — mostly voluntarily — at a very high rate in the U.S., without the need for an extended producer responsibility system, because there is great demand for the lead in the batteries. However, those collecting the batteries are skirting U.S. laws by shipping the batteries to poorly run facilities in Mexico. The money saved by companies is at the expense of the health of workers, citizens, and the environment. It is also at the expense of U.S. companies that are abiding by more protective standards in the U.S. There is truly no such thing as a free lunch. We need to level the global playing field so that U.S. companies do not lose business to companies operating abroad under insufficient standards. We should require U.S. companies to certify that they are using material processors that truly protect the environment all throughout the product lifecycle. This is real product sustainability. It is time for U.S. citizens to demand global environmental and social standards of protection for the products they consume.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2011 4:39 pm

    Here’s a response to the recent NY Times revelation about certain unscrupulous recyclers sending lead acid batteries to Mexico for cut rate, but unsafe recycling.

  2. February 1, 2012 12:48 am

    You are absolutely right about the lifecycle approach being the key to whether Product Stewardship is a success or not. ROHS is probably the place to start. No one is talking about how lead solder (from mostly recycled content) is being replaced by silver mining (#2 source of mercury in the environment) and tin mining (from Indonesian coral islands). If PS advocates pass laws first and measure impacts afterwards, they aren’t really any different than producers, are they?

    • February 1, 2012 2:32 am

      Robin, you point out a problem with the replacement of one material for another without doing a lifecycle assessment in advance. This work on lead solder replacement was done by those not typically seen as advocates of “product stewardship” per se, but those working on toxics use reduction. I cannot comment on the process for lead solder replacement or the lifecycle comparison, but I do recognize that what you describe happens all too often. We need to find ways to conduct lifecycle assessments in an open and transparent fashion, at lower cost, and less time. Otherwise, experts hire their own LCA consultants to develop an analysis that might not benefit from the viewpoints of all stakeholders. There is alot more work to be done in this area. Thanks for bringing it up.

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