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The Tyranny of Distance: Reconciling Extended Producer Responsibility with Global Transportation


By Nick Hvozda

Product take-back, a form of extended producer responsibility (EPR), is an important way to implement more sustainable practices. Whether driven by the business case, ethics or legislation, product take-back promotes the practice of recycling, lifecycle assessment and design for durable reuse in secondary markets. It's also a key component of a circular economy.

Today in the U.S., there are 84 EPR laws covering 12 product categories. As the movement toward product stewardship and closed-loop processes continues to grow, more producers will choose (or be forced) to implement product take-back programs. The growth of reverse logistics from EPR will open opportunities for sustainable businesses to capitalize on the trend. But as this happens, it will be key to consider transport costs, both economic ($) and environmental (CO2).

Imagine a pure scenario: Item X is produced at point A and is transported to point B for sale and use. The original manufacturer is compelled by law to recover Item X at the product’s useful end-of-life to recycle the non-renewable and manmade materials within. For this to happen Item X must make the round trip from Point B back to Point A.

In this scenario, successful product take-back means two times the distance traveled, two times the freight cost, the CO2 emissions, the packaging and the effort. Often it also requires incentivizing the end user to return the product. The energy required for this mechanical work (four times distance) cannot be avoided, and it may make the practice prohibitive. Even if the cost is transferred to the customer in the purchase price, the emissions and carbon cost of the return trip remain. In the global economy, the distance between A and B could be 10,000+ miles.

Of course, these interactions do not happen in a vacuum. There are many ways to recycle and reuse the industrial nutrients in the vicinity of Point B, introducing them to the local industrial or natural ecosystem. The majority of high volume, low cost items can be handled this way.

But many products cannot be easily deconstructed into component elements and sold. Let’s say that the original manufacturer takes Item X back because: 1) Item X contains high-value materials; 2) proprietary knowledge limits the ability of a general recycling facility to maximize the recycled value; and 3) it is cheaper to disassemble Item X and reuse certain specialized and durable machined components than to source and manufacture new components. Item X must then return to the point of origin. How does the manufacturer get Item X from Point B to Point A efficiently?

Networks can help. One option is to create a network that can collect and return Item X to Point A in a bulk shipment — gaining efficiency from volume. Another option is to create a network of employees or contractors, trained in the proper disassembly of the product. For a large multi-national company, these options are feasible. For a small company with a global reach, they are impossible.

A small business can partner among its industry to develop global systems of recovery. The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. (RBRC) is an industry-funded recycling system has collected more than 100 million pounds of batteries over its 20-year existence. Creative partnerships along the entire chain of product life assist in reducing travel distance through collaboration. Internet communication networks between suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and end users, used effectively, create efficiencies and opportunities that were previously unavailable. The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) is a national, non-profit organization with the mission of promoting EPR practices and legislation. It initiates multi-stakeholder dialogues around various industries to assist the development of networks.

In the reverse logistics of product take-back, time is not a critical factor. A reverse of the aphorism “time is money” holds true: price decreases with decreasing urgency. Manufacturers should utilize space-available shipping programs, such as the Fed-Ex TLX option, to reduce freight charges. By partnering with manufacturers, the global logistics industry can maximize previously unused cargo space and generate revenue. Additionally, without time constraints, manufacturers can opt for more efficient modes of transportation: rail instead of truck, ship instead of air.
With take-back in mind, producers can design packaging, as well as products, to be reused. This will not only reduce the need for two sets of packaging (forward and reverse), but will reduce the cost of packaging forward-moving products below previous levels by reducing the need for disposable packaging materials.

Product take-back will only grow as resource constraints tighten. It’s time for products to learn to travel with a round-trip ticket.

Image credit: Flickr/davedugdale

Nick Hvozda is a postgraduate student pursuing his MBA in Sustainable Management at Bard College.

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