If recyclers are to be truly successful they must refocus their attention from the end of the river of materials to the headwaters where those materials are created.
Like many veteran recycling professionals, I have faced serious challenges in making the wish of recycling all materials come true. Although paper, cardboard, cans and bottles have ready markets and collection infrastructure; computers, mattresses and other items did not. They were the problem items that went into dumpsters because costs and lack of mechanism gave them little chance of recycling.
Happily, I can share with you the magic of product stewardship and how it’s changing the world of recycling for the better.
Product stewardship is defined as “the act of minimizing the health, safety, environmental, and social impacts of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages, while also maximizing economic benefits. The manufacturer, or producer, of the product has the greatest ability to minimize adverse impacts, but other stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and consumers, also play a role. Stewardship can be either voluntary or required by law.” – Product Stewardship Institute.
EPR – Product stewardship is taken to the next level with extended producer responsibility (EPR). In EPR, manufacturers are generally held responsible for the end-of-life management of their products. An early version of this was Germany’s Green Dot program, which cast a wide net to manage many items. The more recent efforts in my home state of Connecticut, and other locations, have developed specific programs for specific items. Such narrowing of focus is a wise move as it allows regulators, industry and the recyclers in between them to tackle one item at a time, matching the needs of a particular program with appropriate rules and infrastructure. Our program for electronics EPR functions differently than ones for paint and mattresses, for example.
Collection – Product Stewardship and EPR may look very different than conventional recycling. Although there may be a nicely labeled bin for discarding a specific item, there is more likely to be a fairly unique collection or drop-off method. Most of the EPR items in Connecticut for example, cannot be collected in a curbside bin. Old computers and other electronics are picked up curbside by one municipality but that is the exception not the rule. Most Connecticut residents recycle ewaste by delivering to drop-off centers such as municipal transfer stations. Most businesses that recycle ewaste (many still do not) hire licensed contractors to come on-site and remove the items.
Challenges – The challenges of EPR are formidable but the blessings make them worth it. Passing Connecticut’s ewaste EPR legislation was an enormous challenge championed by CT DEEP and the Connecticut Recyclers Coalition. Showcasing the enormous benefits that would come to state municipalities when producers assumed the cost and management of electronic recycling in the end won the day.
Benefits of EPR – Connecticut has continued adding EPR programs for paint, mattresses and even mercury thermostats.
The estimated savings for the state of Connecticut are now more than $2.6 million per year. Other benefits include job creation, environmental benefits and the long overdue satisfaction for recyclers who see the bugbear items of the 1990s finally going to the right place.
-By CJ May
CJ May served as Yale University’s recycling coordinator for more than 20 years. He currently works as recycling coordinator for the City of Waterbury where he combines his work as an environmental magician and sustainability presenter to enchant 32,000 households with the magic of recycling.