Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

Proliferating product stewardship programs facilitate recycling

Posted by Jon Elliott on Wed, Aug 18, 2021


Solid waste management has come a long way since enactment of the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) of 1965 to address the national “landfill crisis.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) applies SWDA authority to adopt landfill standards, which are administered by state and local governments. EPA also empowers these state and local governments to do more, not just through additional disposal standards, but through expanded requirements for recycling and resource recovery efforts designed to keep more solid wastes out of landfills. In addition, extended management programs impose “product stewardship” and “extended producer responsibility” on manufacturers. This note discusses these introduces these ideas, and summarizes the extent of state programs that apply them.

What are “Product Stewardship” and “Extended Producer Responsibility”?

Product stewardship is an approach to environmental protection that focuses on a product’s complete life cycle, and on the roles of each organization in the product life cycle—producers/manufacturers, retailers, users, and disposers. Producers have the primary responsibility – which can be focused further into what is referred to as "extended producer responsibility.” Useful working definitions of these terms are provided by the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), a nonprofit information and advocacy group which has acted as a convenor and networker for over 20 years:

Product Stewardship is the act of minimizing health, safety, environmental and social impacts, and maximizing economic benefits of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages. The producer of the product has the greatest ability to minimize adverse impacts, but other stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and consumers, also play a role. Stewardship can be either voluntary or required by law.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a mandatory type of product stewardship that includes, at a minimum, the requirement that the producer’s responsibility for their product extends to post-consumer management of that product and its packaging. There are two related features of EPR policy: (1) shifting financial and management responsibility, with government oversight, upstream to the producer and away from the public sector; and (2) providing incentives to producers to incorporate environmental considerations into the design of their products and packaging.

How do product stewardship programs work?

As I explain below, most states have supplemented their solid waste management laws with one or more targeted product stewardship programs. Details vary widely, but these programs typically include the following elements:

  • Define targeted materials – based on product type, concentrations of targeted chemicals, volume/mass generated, etc.

  • Fees to fund the program – usually charged per item, at time of retail sale.

  • Define participating brands or manufacturers.

  • Collection network: permanent collection sites operated by retailers, local government and other service providers; and collection events.

  • Transportation: of collected items to consolidation points or processors, using qualified haulers.

  • Regulation of processers.

  • Outreach and education: public awareness and education programs.

  • Program administration—by product stewardship organizations (typically non-profits organized by regulated industry, environmental, and/or community organizations) contracted by the overlying state or local agency(ies), or sometimes by the agencies directly.

Which wastes are subject to these approaches?

Individual states Individual states have developed programs that reach additional wastestreams. These efforts include longstanding requirements for intensified waste management and recycling of a few wastes, notably used oils, vehicle-sized batteries, and “universal wastes.” Depending on the state, programs may cover one or more of the following:

  • Appliances containing refrigerants

  • Auto switches (focusing on mercury-containing devices)

  • Batteries (distinct programs may cover vehicles-size batteries, and a variety of smaller single use or rechargeable batteries)

  • Beverage containers

  • Carpet

  • Electronics and cell phones (e-wastes)

  • Fluorescent lighting

  • Mattresses

  • Mercury thermostats

  • Packaging

  • Paint

  • Pesticide containers

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Solar panels

  • Tires

  • The Product Stewardship Institute identifies more than 120 such programs spread among 34 US states and local jurisdictions.

What’s next?

Most organizations use at least some of the materials that produce wastes subject to product stewardship and EPR requirements in at least some states, and this will become even more common as these programs continue to proliferate. For example, Maine passed the first packaging EPR law in July 2021, followed quickly by Oregon in August.

Self-assessment checklist

Does the organization produce and sell products that leave wastes after end users finish with them?

  • If so, has the organization evaluated the volumes of such wastes, and methods available for their management?

  • Has the organization assumed any post-use responsibilities for such wastes?

  • Has the organization evaluated whether changes in design or packaging might reduce post-consumer wastes?

Do the organization’s activities include use of input materials that produce waste streams?

  • If so, has the organization identified wastes that are subject to specific recycling, recovery or stewardship programs applicable to its facility(ies) in one or more jurisdictions? 

  • If so, has the organization evaluated its purchasing, to identify materials that produce these wastes?

  • If so, has the organization evaluated the suitability of available alternatives that would not produce wastes subject to these programs?

  • Has the organization established onsite collection of targeted materials, and delivery of those materials to available destinations (solid waste pick-up, retailer, etc.)?

Does the organization track legislative and regulatory processes in order to stay informed about possible changes in applicable waste management requirements, including possible EPR/stewardship mandates?

Where Do I Go For More Information?

EPA’s Land, Wastes, and Cleanup Topics homepage

Product Stewardship Institute website

California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) homepage 

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: EPA, SWDA, Environment, environmental law, Recyclable, Stewardship Program