Thursday, May 31, 2012

Running to stand still: Why the current municipal recycling system can’t deliver the goods

By Scott Mouw, North Carolina Recycling Program Director, scott.mouw(at)

In only two decades, recycling in the U.S. has fundamentally transitioned from a response to a waste disposal crisis to a race to fulfill an insatiable global appetite for commodities. A few hallmarks of this transition included massive shifts in domestic recycled paper capacity (over $10 billion in investment in the 1990s), the development of an entire plastics reclamation industry almost from scratch, and the rise of China’s voracious consumption of secondary materials. Pressure on the virgin material base and escalating energy costs will keep feeding this preference for recycled commodities.

You don’t need Economics 101 to understand that expanding demand should drive an increase in supply. Price signals should mobilize more production – just as American farmers are now planting more corn acreage as bushel prices reach higher levels. In a classic capitalistic system, when demand rises, economic law dictates that suppliers will respond.

So why does this basic tenet appear not to work in the U.S. recycling system? A review of material prices since the 1990s indicates that price signals are clearly being sent. Why can’t our current municipal recycling programs keep up with rising demand? And why have material recovery rates essentially stagnated?

One fundamental cause could be a lack of an economically rational supply base. The backbone of that supply has been thousands of community recycling programs, originally set in motion by the disposal crisis. In seeking to reduce dependence on landfills, local programs were designed to achieve a “public good” on par with schools, police protection, and libraries. Now, these programs – constrained by economic and political pressures on tax revenues that provide the system’s real and operating capital – seem ill-suited to the new paradigm of recycling as a commodity supply imperative.

To put it another way, if you were going to design a responsive commodity supply system, why would you rely on decision-makers who appear unmotivated by prices, have competing internal investments and are essentially unrewarded by the marketplace? And why would you set up a system in which the cost of production – in this case, collection of discarded materials – is not remotely covered by system income, even in the best material value scenarios?

Part of the appeal of extended producer responsibility (EPR) is that it could harness the business acumen of corporate capitalism to improve the commodity supply situation, shifting decision-making from conflicted government agencies to more economically rational actors. It would also inject capital that in turn would improve the overall performance of the system – i.e., collect more materials.

So, beyond a moral argument that producers take responsibility for their stuff, is there also a business case to be made for EPR? Could such a business case overcome the basic nature of U.S. capitalism in which corporations pursue self-interest first, despite potential long-term rewards of working together? And could the business case successfully address a situation in which straight return-on-investment calculations may not be applicable?

Many consumer product and commodity companies already recognize that action is necessary. Many have set specific goals around recycling, recyclability and post-consumer content utilization. Some are investing, albeit in small ways, in the collection and processing system. Can the scale of this commitment expand? And can it take on a more formal, collaborative framework that amplifies the individual efforts?

The writing is on the wall for the future of commodities and the companies that use them. The current recyclable supply system is agonizingly unresponsive to demand and nothing will change that anytime soon. However, concerted industry actions - including shifts in supply decision-making and capitalization - could bring huge benefits to the U.S. recycling system and to the economy as a whole. Nothing less is at stake than the competitiveness of our nation’s manufacturers in a material and energy insecure world.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Producer Responsibility for Disposable Batteries

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director

It has become increasingly clear that the life cycle impacts of the 10 billion disposable batteries produced and discarded around the world each year are significant and problematic.  The battery manufacturers euphemistically refer to these quickly disposable products  as "primary" batteries, which are mostly of the alkaline variety.  They represent 80% of the market for batteries in the United States. 

While alkaline batteries do not contain highly toxic metals like many rechargeable batteries, they do contain dangerous acids, and the metals used also have substantial environmental impacts when considered in aggregate. The European Union has banned the disposal of alkaline batteries and all batteries are to be collected through their producer responsibility electronics directive (WEEE).  Three Canadian provinces have also mandated EPR programs for disposable batteries.  In response, the disposable battery industry is forming a voluntary nationwide stewardship organization to manage alkaline batteries and their kin in the US.

Some history is relevant here.  After bottle deposit laws were passed in the 1970s and 1980s, the next target for producer responsibility legislation in the 1990s was rechargeable batteries – known as "secondary" batteries in industry jargon.  These laws were adopted mostly in states with a lot of trash incineration, like Minnesota, New Jersey and Florida.  In response, the rechargeable battery industry launched a voluntary stewardship organization called the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation.  RBRC gets points for visibility but not for transparency or for accountability for attaining the kind of outcomes established in the legislation that RBRC preempted.  For example, some laws required that 70% of the batteries put on the market must be collected for recycling - RBRC only reports pounds collected, but when regulators looked closely the actual recovery rates, they were in the range of 10 to 20% – and probably still are.

In Canada, new producer responsibility laws that regulate disposable battery collection and recycling have been in place in British Columbia and Ontario since 2010 and in Manitoba since 2011. Quebec’s program will commence this summer.  A new report by CM Consulting, Managing Canada’s Waste Batteries 2012, describes the performance of the programs to date. 

In the United States, the Corporation for Battery Recycling, comprised of the major battery manufacturers in North America -- Duracell, Energizer, Kodak, Panasonic, and Rayovac - are soliciting proposals from organizations to act as the stewardship organization that manages a national program for collecting and recycling disposable household batteries.  The request for proposals will be released in late June 2012.  The national disposable battery recycling program is expected to start in April 2013.

One aspect of the Canadian report mentioned above is especially worth noting in this context.  The report’s author, Clarissa Morawski, is careful to distinguish between different metrics that are often confused: collection, diversion, recovery, recycling, and recycling efficiency (see page 13 of her report). When we talk about the outcomes we hope to achieve with EPR policies, it is important to be clear that we're measuring what matters and that were doing it in a consistent and transparent manner.  Ms. Morawski lays out definitions and methodology that could be applied to a wide range of products and packaging. 

Given the history of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, legislators, regulators and other stakeholders should pay close attention to these metrics in assessing the new stewardship organization for disposable batteries.  Proper assessment will determine whether this proposal actually achieves results, or whether further legislation is needed to ensure that it does.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Product Policy Institute Expands Board to Support Growing Producer Responsibility Movement

We've got three great new board members!  I'm very excited about what each one of them brings to the organization, MP

Product Policy Institute Expands Board to Support Growing Producer Responsibility Movement 

TODAY the Product Policy Institute (PPI) announced it has brought on three new board members to help grow the rising movement for a cradle-to-cradle economy currently sweeping the United States. A key policy driving the transformation is known as extended producer responsibility (EPR), or product stewardship, which shifts physical and financial responsibility for recycling products and packaging away from government to the parties that design them -- manufacturers. The primary goal is incentivizing better design for the environment by internalizing the costs of capturing, reusing and recycling materials that were formerly headed to landfills and waste incinerators.

When PPI started organizing local governments through Product Stewardship Councils to work for state EPR policies in 2004 there were only a handful of producer responsibility recycling laws for discarded products. Today, there are more than 80 state producer responsibility laws in 33 states covering ten categories of products, like electronics, bottles and cans, paint and batteries. And EPR policies are now being proposed for bulky consumer packaging, mattresses and carpet discards.

“With the surge in producer responsibility recycling legislation, PPI needs a large and diverse board that reflects the diversity and breadth of the movement,” said PPI Executive Director Bill Sheehan. “We have recruited three remarkable individuals with significant accomplishments and passion for building a sustainable future. We’re excited about having them on board as the organization begins the next chapter in our development.”

Melissa Walsh Innes (Yarmouth, ME) is an elected State Representative in the Maine Legislature, serving her second term. Serving on Maine’s Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, Melissa focuses on promoting the sustainable management of materials through product stewardship, both at the state and national level. Melissa was the sponsor of Maine’s first-in-the-nation Product Stewardship Framework Law of 2010, and currently works with legislators, businesses, NGO’s and consultants around the world to help foster a constructive dialogue in this policy area. Melissa blogs at

“I’m very excited about joining the Board of Directors for Product Policy Institute in this very active time for EPR in the US,” said Innes. “I have worked closely with PPI over the last several years, and look forward to helping shape the course of the organization moving forward.”

Mark Hays (Washington, DC) coordinates Public Citizen’s campaign efforts to build public support for a constitutional amendment that would challenge corporate interference in our democracy and overturn precedents set by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling. Before that, Mark spent six years as campaign strategist, researcher and policy analyst for Corporate Accountability International. He led development of the award-winning Think Outside the Bottle Campaign, which has worked to pressure bottled water giants such as Nestle Waters to change practices that impact the environment and people's access to water.

Martin Grohman, LEED AP, (Biddeford, ME) is Director of Sustainability for GAF, North America’s largest roofing manufacturer. In this role he is responsible for both market facing initiatives such as promoting shingle recycling, as well as internal efforts promoting sustainability, such as the Company’s Zero-Waste-to-Landfill effort. Marty is a 1989 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with a BS in chemical engineering. He was the co-founder of Correct Building Products, a manufacturer of composite decking, where he developed one of the industry’s first jobsite scrap takeback programs. The company made the Inc 500 List in 2004 and 2005 and exceeded $30MM in annual sales. In 2009, the company was acquired by GAF, and Marty joined the GAF team. Mr. Grohman is also a trustee of The Betterment Fund, a charitable organization that makes grants in conservation, education, and health care.

Product Policy Institute is a non-partisan research, communication and educational organization promoting policies that advance sustainable production and consumption, and good governance in North America. Founded in 2003, PPI works with stakeholders from all sides to advocate for policies that establish cradle-to-cradle producer responsibility for products and packaging.