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. It is a 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 conservatism. 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. He spoke at the recent Resource Recycling Conference in Austin.
Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle — a nonprofit 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 Atlanta-based 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, Smith said.
The other collection challenge is engaging consumers to recycle, 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.
“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 backbone to it, you don't get huge collection numbers,” Smith said.
That's why Call2Recycle and CEA are seeking nationwide product stewardship 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: electronics waste. There are now 25 states that have mandated take-back programs, 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 the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association and a dozen leading companies in the market 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,” said 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. This approach aims to get companies that do not join in industrywide 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 more than 70 million pounds of rechargeable batteries and established a network of 30,000 public collection sites to collect rechargeable batteries and cellphones. 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, the Consumer Electronics Association — which estimates that there are more than 7,500 permanent drop-off locations for consumer electronics in the U.S. — said manufacturers and retailers recycled 460 million pounds of electronics, up 53 percent from 2010, with 96 percent of that total done through certified third-party recycling facilities. Also giving electronics recycling a boost was Best Buy Co.'s decision nine months ago to eliminate fees it had been charging consumers for dropping off items for recycling.
Both groups agree that for recycling to succeed national programs are needed, and recycling needs to be viewed “as a component of a company's business model,” CEA's 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.”
“We have to look at ways to work across product streams,” he said. “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, said the public is demanding more recycling of products, and “major brand owners are stepping forward and managing products at the end of their life.”
“We are starting to see kernels of multimaterial approaches,” Hickle added.
“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.
“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, Hickle noted.