Product take-back

If you design products, you MUST know about product take-back.

"Take-back" is the idea that companies that make the product and/or stores that sell the product are responsible for taking the product back after consumers are done with it.

Kansai Recycling Systems Co., Ltd. began full operation in Hirakata City, Osaka, in April 2001. This plant was established by manufacturers who were required to 'take back' used appliances under the Home Appliance Recycling Law in Japan.

With the exception of computers and mercury thermometers, take-back is unheard of in the U.S. Here, consumers are used to throwing products away when they break or become outdated. Old telephones go into the garbage bin, old cars go to the junkyard, and there is no link back to their original manufacturer.

But, in Europe and Japan, countries now have have a product take-back policy where companies are responsible for collecting their product when the consumer is done. These regulations are designed to keep bulky or toxic products and packaging out of the waste stream. A list of what's happening in various countries regarding take back is on the EPA website.

Once companies have to take products back, they become immediately interested in design for disassembly and recyclability because they are the ones doing the disassembling and recycling.

The German government issued draft legislation in 1990 that required automobile makers to take back large amounts of scrap in spent vehicles. BMW jumped on this right away and changed its design, sales, and colleciton systems to handle take-back of its cars. In September 2000, the European Parliment passed a regulation that mandates automobile take-back in all EU member countries by 2015. Having been at it for 10 years, BMW was way ahead of other car makers and welcomed the EU regulation as a competitive advantage.

Other European countries have laws where stores must accept packaging on the spot. Customers love it because trash collection bills are very high in Europe and if you can leave your package at the store, you save money. The result? An immediate reduction in product packaging.

In our country, several products have been dictated by take-back laws for quite some time. It is illegal to dispose used car batteries in the municipal waste stream. So how do you get rid of an old battery? Fortunately, stores that sell batteries are required by law to accept used batteries for free. The same rules apply to motor oil. Any business that sells oil or operates a change oil service is required to accept used oil, even if the customer did not buy their new oil from that store.

Another form of take-back are deposit laws, more commonly known as "bottle bills" that have been implemented in ten states starting with Oregon and Vermont in 1972. Bottle bills mandate that a per-bottle deposit (5 to 10 cents) be paid every time you purchase a bottled beverage (this includes soft drinks, juices, water, beer...everything that comes in a bottle). You get your deposit back when you lug all your empty bottles to a store. In Massachusetts, roadsides become instantly cleaner right after their bottle bill passed in 1983 because suddenly trash had value. For more on bottle bills, go to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide.