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Product stewardship schemes can work without regulation

Mobilemuster product stewardship

By Louise Hyland

As the Albanese Government in Australia takes significant steps to prioritise recycling and promote a circular economy, the electronics industry is facing increased scrutiny – and the government’s intention for regulation can’t be ignored when it comes to product stewardship.

The government has signalled its intention to regulate the electronics industry, with the establishment of a regulatory product stewardship scheme for electrical and electronic products on the horizon. The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water  (DEECCW) is currently consulting on a proposed e-stewardship program, with an outcome expected soon. 

The opportunity to strengthen and expand product stewardship for electrical and electronic products in Australia will help contribute to a circular economy, reduce environmental and human health impacts, and increase the recovery of valuable materials, including critical minerals.

Product stewardship is about taking responsibility for the full lifecycle of a product – from manufacturing through to end of life, and ensuring that the product doesn’t end up in landfill. It helps ensure the product and its materials are recyclable, and all materials are contributing to the circular economy.

However, addressing the challenge of electronic waste management will require a careful balance between voluntary initiatives and government regulation, with product stewardship at the core. Are voluntary schemes enough, or will the government choose stricter regulation as the inevitable next step?

Regulation is on the horizon
The government has made it clear that it is not afraid to regulate, should voluntary measures prove unsuccessful. Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Environment and Water, has already signalled as such across several industry sectors including soft plastics, clothing, solar panels, tyres – and of course, electronics.

During a February 2023 speech at the VISY roundtable, for example, the Minister said the Albanese government is prepared to regulate the plastics-recycling industry if voluntary codes fail to fix the crisis revealed by the collapse of REDcycle. 

“I’m happy to let industry take the lead, but if industry is unable to act, then I have no problem with imposing obligations,” she said. 

More recently, in June 2023, the minister announced the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme, which is voluntary. Minister Plibersek said: “If companies choose to pull out, or free ride on the work of others, then I have no problem stepping in and regulating directly. The alternative to this program isn’t a weaker scheme with a lower levy – it’s government regulation.”

The same is true of the tyres and mattresses industries, which were added to the Minister’s product stewardship priority list for 2022–23. And with 90 per cent of solar panels ending up in landfill, the Minister has made it clear that federal regulation of solar panel waste is a national priority. The electronics industry is next in line. 

The electronics industry is similarly within the Minister’s sight line, with the Department of Environment identifying an opportunity to strengthen and expand product stewardship for electrical and electronic products in Australia. 

Electrical and electronic products, including small electronics such as mobile phones, are already firmly on the Minister’s product stewardship priority list for 2022–23. 

The intention to develop a regulatory product stewardship scheme for household electrical and electronic products has been made clear. 

Elements of the proposed electronics product stewardship scheme are similar to the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS), a co-regulatory program that funds collection and recycling programs for the television and computer industry. Products covered by the scheme include end-of-life televisions, printers, computers, computer parts and peripherals.

In practice, any regulatory scheme would mean that manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers must demonstrate measurable product design improvements to increase the durability, repairability, re-usability and/or recyclability of electronic and electrical products by June 2025.

However, voluntary schemes can be successful without regulation.

Regulatory product stewardship schemes can prove a necessary step, especially when there are poor policy outcomes – as in the case of soft plastics. But the assumption that all voluntary schemes will ultimately prove unsuccessful is exactly that: an assumption. 

MobileMuster, a division of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), is proving that ‘voluntary’ and ‘successful’ can go hand in hand. The free mobile phone recycling scheme recovers and repurposes 99 per cent of glass, plastic, and metal materials used in mobile phones, batteries, chargers, modems, and smart devices. 

Although industry participation in the scheme remains entirely voluntary, MobileMuster currently has 96.7 per cent mobile phone manufacturer industry participation and 90 per cent mobile phone carrier participation, with its success built around shared responsibility from industry participants.  

Since first achieving accreditation in 2014, MobileMuster has routinely exceeded the annual KPIs set forward by the federal government, recycling 2000 tonnes of e-waste and diverting more than 96 per cent of donated materials from landfill. This is the equivalent of 5,000 tonnes of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere or planting more than 80,000 trees.

In 2021-22 alone, MobileMuster collected close to 109 tonnes of mobile phone components for recycling, which had the equivalent benefit of reducing global warming by 42 tonnes of CO2-e emissions, saving 215 tonnes of mineral resources, and planting 11,000 trees.

Through partnerships with some of Australia’s biggest retailers including Officeworks, Woolworths, Australia Post, and Samsung, 96 per cent of the country’s population is within 10km of a MobileMuster drop-off site.

The success of the MobileMuster program has been built around the shared responsibility that the industry has taken to recycle mobile phones and related accessories. This relies on a collective responsibility that the mobile industry has voluntarily embraced for more than 25 years, with each member doing their bit to help the environment. 

MobileMuster’s government-accredited program stands as a prime example of an industry-led, not-for-profit product stewardship scheme that is entirely voluntary, demonstrating the positive impact of shared responsibility and collaboration. 

And for the small proportion of industry that hasn’t yet become involved in voluntary programs, the government’s clear warning around regulation is one that must be taken seriously. 

As the Albanese Government moves forward with its intention to develop a regulatory product stewardship scheme for household electrical and electronic products, MobileMuster is clear proof that voluntary industry collaboration works. 

Louise Hyland is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Telecommunications Association Limited (AMTA) 

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