the producers pushing for more responsibility

Responsible brand owners don’t like to be called waste producers. That was pretty much borne out by a conversation I had this week with HP’s environmental manager Bruno Zago, who balked at the idea that his company could be considered in such terms.

The reality is that consumer brands like HP are acutely aware of the waste being generated through global use of their products and are working aggressively to address this by re-examining their own code of practices in this era of weak government and voluntary agreements.

Individual producer responsibility (IPR) was one topic that Zago talked at length about. It’s something that his company along with its competitors are taking very seriously right now.

The beauty of IPR is that it has the potential to be a real game-changer by sparking competition between brands on end-of-life product management. It is already reducing environmental impact by fuelling business model innovation and improvements in product design and take-back logistics.

However in policy terms, the concept of IPR is virtually non-existent. The WEEE Directive touches upon it, as it sets down producer obligations for financing end-of-life costs of own-branded products, but it doesn’t extend that responsibility to actual recycling.

If companies had to recover their own products they would do one of two things – design them better, to make them last longer, or make them easier to recycle and feed back into remanufacture through end-of-life disassembly. Without IPR, these incentives for design improvements are lost.

By making modifications to product design, producers can directly influence the cost of end-of-life recovery and this is something HP has neatly cottoned onto. The company is investing heavily in designing out waste because it can add value, as well as sustainability, to the bottom line.

Zago believes his company is ahead of the game here and is examining ways in which it can start to take ownership of the recovery process. “If our competitors’ notebooks take five minutes to disassemble, but ours only takes one minute, it’s a benefit to us so we want to take back that material,” he told me.

HP is now lobbying for IPR to be enshrined in legislation, and it is something the Government is considering hammering down on. Last year business secretary Vince Cable promised to take a “long, hard look” at how such a system might work on British soil. The Resource Security Action Plan consequently made mention of it and BIS is to take the lead on further investigation.

However should it become law there will be plenty of hurdles to negotiate, not least the recovery process itself. Under current practice, most e-waste is shredded – this will have significant implications for manufacturers if they are to be encouraged to design products in a more sustainable fashion.

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