Recycling Guru: Rockies Lagging in Sustainable Waste Policies

Photos – Brendon Bosworth

[Article first published at NewWest.net]

In February, Colorado’s House Committee on Health and Environment shelved the proposed Consumer Electronics Recycling Act. If passed, the act would have required manufacturers to introduce recycling programs for their hard-to-recycle products, including televisions, computers and air conditioners, along with other electronic items. Many of these electronic devices house toxic metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which can leak into landfills and leach into soil and groundwater.

The act would also have phased in a ban on disposing some types of electronic devices at Colorado landfills. Manufacturers would have had to pay an annual registration fee to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment and submit annual reports to the department. Colorado’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Commission would have introduced new rules to regulate the recycling programs.

Government regulations that mandate producers take responsibility for the fate of their products once the goods have reached the end of their lives are known as extended producer responsibility or product stewardship laws.

Such policies are vital to achieving what recycling advocates term a zero waste society because they prompt manufacturers to start making goods that use fewer materials and are designed to be reused and recycled, said Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycling organization in Boulder.

“Instead of 28 grades of paper, let’s have a few. Instead of 30 grades of plastic, let’s have four. Let’s start standardizing what we make all our stuff out of,” he said in a recent interview. “Then it would be so much cheaper and easier to recover and recycle.”

Without the act, Colorado will stick with its regular waste management strategies, including recycling, as “end-of-pipe solutions,” said Lombardi, a recycling authority who has been at the helm of Eco-Cycle since 1989.

The way Lombardi paints it, the waste management industry is at the tail end of a pipe that’s spewing out a stream of society’s throwaways. And while recycling organizations like his are doing a good job of diverting tons of trash from landfills and incinerators, producers need to start making goods that are not “designed for the dump,” he said.

Rocky Mountain West Slow to Get Onboard

This map from the Product Stewardship Institute, an organization working to inform and shape product stewardship policies, shows that 32 states have implemented a total of 66 extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws. The laws cover items including batteries, carpets, pesticide containers and paint.

While states on both coasts have introduced progressive EPR regulations, the Rocky Mountain West has a scarcity of such laws. Montana and Utah are the only states in the region to pass them and theirs only deal with products containing mercury.

Montana passed its law in 2009, requiring manufacturers to establish collection and recycling programs for mercury-containing thermostats. The state also offers a free collection service for them.

Utah passed a law in 2006 that requires car manufacturers to remove and safely dispose of any switches, such as those found in some car lights, containing mercury. Manufacturers also have to pay a minimum of $5 per switch to anyone who removes and collects mercury-containing switches.

In Colorado, the proposed Consumer Electronics Recycling Act met some resistance from business groups before it was postponed indefinitely. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce opposed it on the grounds that it would introduce increased fees and “regulatory complexity for affected manufacturers,” according to a statement issued by the organization. The chamber also identified a “greatly increased workload for multiple state regulatory agencies involved in overseeing such a program” as a reason for opposing the act.

“The chamber’s perspective on this is that there is a private sector solution,” said Amanda Arthur, public relations specialist with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

For example, the City of Denver’s Electronics Recycling Coupon Program offers residents discounted fees to recycle their electronic goods, Arthur said.

“The chamber as a whole is opposed to mandates because there can be a lot of devils in the details,” said Arthur, in reference to the postponed act. “While we can really appreciate the impetus behind an idea like this, and we do, there are just too many unknowns and that’s a real problem.”

The chamber was concerned that added costs for manufacturers would be passed to consumers, Arthur said.

The Role of Cheap Disposal

In the Rocky Mountain region, the market drives policy, Lombardi said, and the market means states in the Rockies have the worst recycling rate and the cheapest landfills in the country.

Lombardi explained that the financial costs of using landfills do not truly reflect the associated environmental costs, which include greenhouse gas and mercury emissions and the pollution of groundwater.

Lombardi compared the rate of about $15 a ton at the nearby Denver Regional Landfill to a national average of $45 per ton and rates of more than $80 to $120 per ton on the East Coast. Some European countries charge between $200 and $300 per ton, he said.

Lombardi, who has consulted government and private-sector clients in different parts of the world, including France, England and New Zealand, said management of refuse should primarily be considered a social issue, not just a function of market prices, and this should translate into public policy.

Communities Need to Take an Active Role

Boulder, with a residential recycling rate of over 50 percent, is a recycling leader, said Lombardi. Having over half the residents recycling is particularly commendable, since recycling is not mandated by law, he said.

“I don’t know of any other community that’s done that well without mandates,” he said.

Through its recycling programs, including curbside composting, and the creation of the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials, where residents can recycle computers, cell phones, athletic shoes, styrofoam and even fire extinguishers, among other items, Eco-Cycle has created a climate where there’s very little that can’t be recycled.

“In Boulder you can recycle more diverse items than any other community I’ve ever been in,” he said.

At the same time, Lombardi would prefer to see a stronger commitment to regulating garbage management, with the community creating and calling for new laws to ensure that infrastructure “greens up.”

The business recycling rate in Boulder is only about 25 percent and regulations would help businesses get on board, Lombardi said.

“We’re not going to get away from landfills – they’re too dang cheap – unless we just take control of the situation and say we don’t want to live this way, we know it’s wrong,” he said.

While Lombardi identifies a moral imperative to recycle, he also touts the role recycling plays in job creation. Together, Eco-Cycle’s main operation, the Boulder County Recycling Center, which is owned by the county and operated by Eco-Cycle, and the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials process 50,000 tons of material per year. Running the business and sorting and processing different goods requires more staff than a landfill where trash is simply dumped into a hole in the ground.

“In the landfill industry the rule of thumb is that you can create one job for every 10,000 tons of trash,” said Lombardi.

“If we were a landfill we’d have five jobs. Well, we have 70. We’re creating $2.5 million in payroll,” he said. “We’re creating value out of these discards, where there is no value in a landfill.”

Eco-Cycle is financially self-supportive and draws revenue from providing collection services, selling recycled materials – it sells recycled glass to beer maker MillerCoors, for example – and providing education services, Lombardi explained.  At its Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials, a $3 fee is charged for each vehicle dropping off goods. There are separate fees for some hard-to-recycle products. A home phone, for instance, costs $2 to recycle.

Eco-Cycle makes a low profit of 10 percent to support its zero waste mission, making it a social enterprise, said Lombardi.

“I think social enterprise is the key to moving forward for the next 10 or 15 years as we struggle to get the environmental regulations in place so that normal for-profit companies will want to do what Eco-Cycle is doing,” he said.

While it seems recycling advocates have a challenge ahead of them in shifting business and government mindsets toward more sustainable waste management policies, Lombardi remains positive.

“I love this field; I come to work every day charged up,” he said. “We’re talking about the biggest issues you can talk about – that is, human beings organizing themselves on the planet for sustainability. How are we going to do it? There’s no bigger work in my mind.”

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2 thoughts on “Recycling Guru: Rockies Lagging in Sustainable Waste Policies

  1. Recycling it does of course take up energy meaning wasteful burning of fossil fuels. It takes less energy – and is a great deal less messy – to convert them to paper than to waste energy and deal with the dirty mess that is a product of paper recycling.

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