Product stewardship: Linking waste back to primary production

Author: Alec McNeil

Product stewardship: Linking waste back to primary production

Alec McNeil
29 November 2021

McNeil, A. (2021). Product stewardship: Linking waste back to primary production. (A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Professional Practice at Otago Polytechnic).


The mismanagement of waste products generated from economic activity results in environmental harm. In current globalised supply chain relationships, responsibilities for waste management become transferred. That transfer of responsibility fails to reduce waste at source, contain waste appropriately, maximise resource recovery or fund the management of products at the end of their usefulness. In response to this situation, the New Zealand Government has adopted a policy called Product Stewardship which, in principle, is intended to support the shared responsibility for the whole life of a product across the supply chains.

Product Stewardship, to date in New Zealand, has been based on an industry-led, voluntary approach. Whilst voluntary approaches have enjoyed varying levels of success over the last decade, the amount of waste sent to landfill in New Zealand and offshore for recycling, has increased significantly. Onshore, landfill is supported by engineered containment of waste and is visible to communities. Offshore, recycling processes are unsighted.

In 2017, the New Zealand Government began a review of the waste system in response to the contraction of offshore recycling markets. In 2020, the Government announced its intention to move beyond voluntary Product Stewardship in favour of a mandatory approach, by declaring six priority product waste streams. Subsequent to this change in policy emphasis, a number of co-design working groups have been established to develop mandatory Product Stewardship schemes, based on guidelines set out by the Government.

The aim of this research is to understand how Product Stewardship can contribute to the reduction of waste within New Zealand. The objectives of the research are to: understand the kinds of opportunities that mandatory Product Stewardship may present to the community of practice, to analyse existing research on Product Stewardship and other literature relevant to this field, and to provide the researcher with an opportunity to contribute to discussions on Product Stewardship from a research-based position.

A transdisciplinary research methodology has been used to reflect the diversity of the community of practice involved in the Product Stewardship space. Research data was generated through undertaking semi-structured interviews, document analysis, and participant observation. The results of this research suggests that any successful application of mandatory Product Stewardship will be reliant on a substantial paradigm shift in economic thinking to reset how waste is viewed, treated, and responded to. In the absence of such a shift, mandatory Product Stewardship runs the risk of being adopted into current market thinking, resulting in no material impact on waste reduction.

Keywords: product stewardship, co-design, social construction, markets, consensus, change

Alec's research was supervised by Martin Andrew and Lesley Gill.


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