Experts: Producer responsibility needed, but hard to manage

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AUSTIN, TEXAS (Sept. 13, 3:50 p.m. ET) — As more companies and brand owners debate the pros and cons of extended producer responsibility, several individuals currently involved in mandated product take-back programs caution that putting together the right system is a daunting task that gets further complicated when government mandates vary from state-to-state.

They also note that there are not many precedents for how companies can work together — which breeds caution and conservation. In addition, collection can be fragmented, preventing programs from getting the volumes needed to successful.

In addition to different mandates, “the biggest challenges are collection and influencing consumer behavior,” said Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability for the Consumer Electronics Association, at the recent Resource Recycling Conference in Austin.

Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle — a non-profit organization funded by Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. members to advance recycling — agreed.

“Recycling of items needs to be in an environment that pushes things forward,” said Smith, whose organization now recycles both batteries and cell phones. “That is difficult because often it is so fragmented that there is not enough critical mass for recycling to be efficient.”

“In most voluntary systems, the brand owner should be active in taking the product back and playing an important role in financing, but that doesn’t always happen,” he said.

The other collection challenge is engaging and incenting consumers to recycle products, they said.

“Products are widely distributed, but consumers own them until they dispose of them, and collection ultimately depends on consumer behavior and often there is no direct incentive for consumer,” Alcorn said.

“Recycling is good for a lot of reasons, but there is no direct incentive for consumers,” he said. “We need recycling programs convenient to the public. Our long-term goal is to make recycling as easy as a purchase.”

In addition, Smith said Call2Recycle believes — based on its nearly 20 years of experience — that “voluntary collection eventually maxes out at a certain number, unless there is a huge end value in the market for what you are collecting.”

“Without putting more of backbone to it, you don’t get huge collection numbers,” he said

That’s why both Call2Recycle are both seeking nationwide product stewardship solutions to help their organizations spur more recycling — and to bring uniformity to take-back programs that have different rules in different states.

A case in point: e-waste, where 25 states now have mandated take-back program, many of which are similar in natural — but still different.

“The differences in state laws present long-term difficulties and challenges,” said Alcorn. “We are now working [as an industry] toward a national solution to get the scale of collection to where we can get efficiencies. A national problem should have a national solution. All parties must be held to the industry standards.”

That was one of the factors that triggered CEA and a dozen leading consumer electronics companies to launch a nationwide eCycling leadership initiative 18 months ago with the aim of recycling 1 billion pounds of consumer electronics goods by 2016.

“We are doing it to keep state 26 from happening,” admitted Alcorn, “We are trying to reduce the need for legislation. You could almost say that we were almost a failure because it took us [the industry] this long” to put together a national program.

“The eCycling leadership initiative provides an operational model for an industry-led national system and the opportunity for us to learn what works and what doesn’t as we go forward,” Alcorn said. “It really marks the shift in our industry from talking about a national solution to setting goals and expectations that will help make that happen.”

Similarly, Call2Recycle — whose predecessor organization was originally formed to prevent more states from adopting mandated battery recycling — now advocates “a nationwide product stewardship” approach in order to get companies that do not join in industry-wide recycling initiatives — to participate, Smith said.

“We were collecting more and more, but less and less that had a revenue stream,” Smith said. “Up to 40 percent of what we were collecting did not have a revenue stream.”

Since 1996, Call2Recycle has diverted over 70 million pounds of rechargeable batteries and established a network of 30,000 public collection sites to collect rechargeable batteries and cell phones. In 2011, it collected a record 7.6 million pounds of rechargeable batteries in the U.S. and Canada, and 1.3 million pounds of non-rechargeable batteries in Canada.

Similarly, in 2011, CEA — which estimates that there are more than 7,500 permanent drop-off locations for consumer electronics in the United States — said that manufacturers and retailers recycled 460 million pounds of electronics up 53 percent from 2010 with 96 percent of that done through certified third-party recycling facilities.

Also giving electronics recycling a boost was Best Buy’s decision nine months ago to eliminate the fees it had been charging consumers for dropping off items for recycling.

Both groups agree that for recycling to succeed that national programs are needed, and that recycling needs to be viewed “as a component of a company’s business model,” Alcorn said.

‘What I’d like to see is an industry-driven system for recycling consumer electronics where companies make it part of their business model,” said Alcorn. “If you can get companies to integrate recycling into their business model, it will happen nationally.”

Eventually, Alcorn said he’d like “to see five or six product stewardship organizations that collect a variety of products—not material or product-specific programs.”

Smith agreed.

“We have to look at ways to work across product streams,” said Smith. “As we expand product-specific recycling, we also need to put time into thinking about this to develop collection and recycling properly so that is not all splintered, and so we are doing it efficiently, not inefficiently.”

Garth Hickle, product stewardship leader with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, concurred.

“There is an increasing demand from the public for more recycling of products, and major brand owners are stepping forward and managing products at the end of their life,” he said. “We are starting to see kernels of multi-material approaches. The idea is starting to gain traction.”

“We need to research to determine what contributes to a well-funded voluntary stewardship program and how to make these programs efficient because we need to get a revenue stream associated with it,” said Hickle. “The fundamental stumbling block has been getting brand owners to work together and their concern whether benefits will accrue to them” or to their competitors.