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Taking back the waste

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Piles of large unwanted items await collection on the footpaths of Byron Shire in Northern NSW. Most heaps contain at least one computer, monitor or TV set, and some in perfect working order but discarded as garbage due to age or technological obsolescence. Others require no more than a small repair, and all are recyclable.

New-looking objects that would be picked up by passers-by in many other countries are dismissively treated as rubbish once they enter such a pile, and consequently the ‘respectable’ majority walks past products that they would otherwise pay to purchase in a store.

Innovative solutions

Across the world, the laissez-faire approach to waste that had been taken for granted in earlier decades is now widely seen as dysfunctional. Over the past few years, it has been receiving an overhaul under the banner of what is termed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

The shift towards EPR is being driven by such factors as proliferating quantities of garbage, rising disposal costs, and the difficulties in establishing further landfill sites (including local opposition). Essentially, it indicates the responsibility of a producer for an item throughout its lifecycle, often involving take-back requirements leading to recycling or reuse. In addition to consumer products, it can equally apply to the packaging they arrive in.

Up until now, corporations have profited from ‘externalising’ the costs of waste disposal by passing them onto the local government sector. With EPR, these waste costs are ‘internalised’ into the product itself, from which they are often passed onto the consumer. Many perceive this to be a more equitable approach than requiring all ratepayers to pay for the disposal of items discarded by some.

Through an elegant economic logic, EPR creates a strong financial incentive to re-think product design and materials with end-of-life considerations in mind. In particular, toxic materials that will later boomerang back to the manufacturer are likely to be swiftly phased out.

As an alternative to purchase, EPR encourages leasing in such areas as office equipment, computers, carpeting and cleaning equipment, coupled with upgrade or remanufacture. Servicising is the new buzzword for such instances where a function rather than a product is being sold.

Although a transnationals corporation may operate from a jurisdiction without EPR legislation, as further countries opt for EPR it becomes increasingly practical for such a company to adopt EPR in its worldwide operations. This avoids the extra cost and complexity of pursuing different sets of practices across various countries with differing regulatory regimes.

The genesis of a model

Prompted by a landfill shortage, in 1991 Germany introduced a law (known as the ‘green dot’ system) that makes producers responsible for collecting, sorting and recycling packaging. This extends to transport-related packaging such as pallets and crates. To meet this challenge, 600 German companies paid for the creation of a consortium known as Duales System Deutschland (DSD), to organise collection and recycling. Depending on the material, government-recycling goals were set at ambitious levels ranging from 64% to 75%. A green dot on packaging guarantees that it will later be recycled.

Today, EPR in some form has spread to many industrialised countries, including most of Europe, parts of North America, and Taiwan, Japan and Korea. The most obvious exception is the US, where a lack of federal-level action is probably due to the influence of the corporate sector.

However, some American states have bucked the trend, pioneering EPR laws such as the e-waste (defunct computer equipment) take-back requirements now operating in Maine and Massachusetts. In the case of nickel-cadmium batteries, a handful of state recycling laws led the battery industry to implement a national take-back program. Some US companies, including Xerox, have adopted voluntary EPR practices for profit-driven motives. Member countries of the European Union have tended to pursue EPR most strongly, following the EU’s adoption of producer responsibility in its 1994 packaging waste directives. Today most EU nations have implemented EPR at some level, and the most advanced policies are found in the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Austria.

In 2002, the EU’s End of Life Vehicle directive came into effect, partly motivated by the toxicity of some scrap car components. From that year onwards car manufacturers were required to pay the recycling costs of all vehicles entering the market. E-waste, one of the fastest growing waste areas, is covered in the EU’s 2003 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. Last year, electronics firms became responsible for the recycling, reuse or disposal of products entering the market. The WEEE directive also includes an e-waste landfill ban, as a means of tackling the hazardous chemicals from electronics entering landfill or being incinerated. New products must be labelled accordingly to inform consumers.

Slow progress in Australia

Recently Australia was found by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to have the least regulated economy in the Western world. This is reflected in the strong preference for voluntary codes in place of regulatory regimes with penalty provisions. As is often the case, Australia has been lagging behind the rest of the world in its adoption of EPR, but there have been some successes.

In a broad sense, the most significant example of EPR is the Container Deposit Legislation (CDL) running in South Australia, where the payment of five cents per recyclable item at collection depots has curbed both litter and waste. Once collected, manufacturers have a responsibility to refill, recycle or dispose of these returned containers.

To date, other states have bowed to strong opposition from the drinks industry and its peak body, the Beverage Industry Environment Council. Although an independent report commissioned in 2002 by the NSW Government recommended the introduction of CDL, this advice was not followed. At around the same time, moves towards CDL were also scrapped in the Northern Territory. NSW is currently targeting 17 ‘wastes of concern’, including computers, mobile phones and plastic bags. Negotiations are underway between the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation and industry bodies: voluntary programs underpinned by regulatory measures are the most likely outcome. The states are working cooperatively towards the same goal: developing a national agreement that could operate either with the support of, or in the absence of, federal endorsement.

Problem wastes and disposal solutions

While many toxic or otherwise undesirable items of junk can be diverted from landfill, information on how to go about this is often maddeningly hard to track down, and may require some research. Below is an attempt to bring some of it together in one place.

Smoke alarms

Most smoke alarms are the ionisation variety and contain a minute quantity of radioactive material. A non-radioactive alternative works using photoelectric technology. Purchasers are asked to drop off defunct ionisation alarms with the supplier for safe disposal, and in some states this is mandatory.

Mobile phones

These fast-multiplying waste stream components contain arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals. Last year, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association launched its Mobile Muster take-back program, where defunct mobiles and batteries are returned to retailers. The Mobile Muster site (see below) has a searchable geographic database of drop-off points. A second option is to call Clean Up Australia on 1800 282 329 for a postage-paid mobile phone envelope.

Computers and monitors

The nasties here include lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants. Facilities for recycling computer junk are limited, and one important strategy is the upgrading and repairing of old machines for future use by community groups and the disadvantaged. Two national computer-recycling programs are running; and as both operate on a pay-to-recycle basis they are therefore likely to appeal only to an environmentally committed minority. One is run by computer giant Dell, and covers both its own and competitors’ machines: the other is the Collex/Sims Electronics Recycling Alliance (details on both are given below). As computer recycling is set to take off in the future, temporarily storing defunct equipment in the garage defers the e-waste dilemma. Where e-waste is dropped of for recycling, try to confirm that it will not be exported to developing countries such as China, India and Pakistan where circuit boards are recycled using very primitive techniques, polluting the surrounding environment. Although such toxic e-waste exports violate Australia’s commitment to the Basel Convention, there is no harm in taking a precautionary approach.

Batteries

Despite the fact that these may contain lead, cadmium and mercury, the disposal of most household batteries has been left in the ‘too hard’ basket by the powers that be; hopefully Australia will soon join most of the developed world by launching a national recycling program.

Two obvious solutions are to use rechargeables or non-toxic Nickel Metal Hydrides (NiMH). Disposables can be recharged a limited number of times using specialist chargers, or stored safely in a solid container to prevent leakage.

Laptop, camcorder and mobile phone batteries can be repacked, and mobile phone batteries can alternatively be dropped off at Mobile Muster collection points. Take a dead car battery to your nearest waste management centre; these are also accepted by some garages and battery retailers.

Tyres

As these contain various toxic heavy metals, ensure that tyre purchases are made from a retailer that sends off its discarded tyres for shredding and recycling.

 

Resources

NSW Department of Environment and Conservation www.environment.nsw.gov.au (go to Education Resources, Recycling and Waste and then follow the Product Stewardship/EPR link)
Mobile Muster www.mobilemuster.com.au
Dell computer recycling www.dell.com.au/recycle
Collex/Sims electronics recycling www.sims-group.com

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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