New Yorkers discard 310,000 thermostats containing hazardous mercury each year, but only 1% is recycled, meaning that 1,800 pounds of mercury end up in landfills or combustion facilities. If these products are improperly disposed of, they can be released into the environment, with harmful effects on humans and wildlife.
A bill that would require manufacturers to set up and maintain collection programs for the proper management of discarded thermometers is making its way through the New York state Legislature, and its Senate version, S 4345-B, will soon come up for a vote, said Katherine Bourbeau, statewide coordinator of the New York Product Stewardship Council (NYPSC), speaking at a forum in New York City on May 9.
In 2006, Maine enacted the first state law requiring manufacturers to develop a thermostat recycling program. Since then, several states, including California, Washington, Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, have enacted laws requiring manufacturer take-back of the products.
In addition to mercury thermostats, state lawmakers are considering bills that would require manufacturers to set up programs managing the recycling or safe disposal of used paint and carpets.
“Strong rationales support the take-back of these three products,” said Bourbeau during the forum, which was sponsored by the New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse & Recycling (NYSAR3) and its affiliated program, Buy Recycled Alliance of New York.
Speakers focused on recent efforts to improve the management of solid waste in the state through product stewardship and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Many of the economic advantages from good product stewardship accrue not only to manufacturers but also to the population at large, because the recycling industry is a huge creator of domestic jobs, from unskilled through highly skilled and professional-level positions, said Resa Dimino, former special assistant for policy at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and a member of NYPSC Steering Committee.
Bourbeau described three central problems caused by end-of-life carpeting: the cost of transporting the waste, its bulk in landfills and the carbon-dioxide emissions associated with its manufacture. The New York City Department of Sanitation alone is faced with the management of 1 billion pounds per year of discarded carpeting, so not surprisingly, the city government supports passage of legislation that would require producers to take back this part of the waste stream, she said. The state bill under consideration, A8492-A, is currently undergoing revision.
“Both economic and environmental costs could be reduced if carpeting were recycled into new products,” said Bourbeau.
Post-consumer paint is another particularly expensive part of the waste stream that local governments need to handle. By volume, it comprises 40 to 60% of all household waste and can cost $8 per gallon to manage, she said. New York City supports legislation that would require its take-back, but disagreements between industry and recycling advocates about program details mean the current version, A953, is likely to see considerable changes before coming to any vote, said Bourbeau.
Three states – Oregon, California, and Connecticut – have already enacted laws requiring manufacturers to take back and safely manage leftover latex and oil-based paints from manufacturers and contractors.
Forum participants also discussed the prospects for an EPR program to compel the take-back of unused pharmaceuticals, traces of which are being detected in surface water even after processing in water treatment plants. Here, the goals would be not only to protect water quality but also to prevent controlled substances — that is, narcotics — from being discarded in ways that leave them accessible for abuse. Overall, industry opposes a mandatory program. Efforts to develop a take-back law are further complicated by regulations that cover the handling of unused narcotics, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Bourbeau stressed the need to form a strong coalition to get better traction for the issue, and said that NYPSC will be working to advance that goal.
Another area that offers potential for both environmental and economic gains is plastics. In contrast to contexts in which advocates and industry are at odds, many manufacturers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or number 1) plastics are eager for an increase in recycling so as to make more secondary material available for use in fabrication, said Dimino. A higher recycled content in PET products reduces the energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions associated with manufacturing, offering benefits that both environmentalists and companies appreciate, she said.
Makers of aluminum-based products and of glass bottles also operate in secondary markets in which recycling rates seem to have leveled off.
For PET plastics, the obstacle has to do with sorting technologies at materials recovery facilities that can’t handle thermoformed food containers, whereas the problem for aluminum and glass bottles ia a plateauing of collection through municipally run recycling programs, said Dimino. We seem to need something else, and that could be achieved through an EPR program, she said.
“If industry really wants more materials and is in charge of collection, they may do better figuring out how to solve the problem of stalled recycling rates,” Dimino said.
— By Eleanor Saunders
 Product stewardship policies encompass a range of actions that aim to minimize the negative health, safety, and environmental impacts of products and packaging, and to maximize the economic and social benefits they provide throughout their lifecycle, either by means of voluntary or mandatory programs. Central to such programs is the assignment of responsibilities to a range of stakeholders, including manufacturers, retailers and consumers, in order to reach these goals. Sometimes these objectives are realized through laws that set up programs requiring Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which holds producers responsible for managing products and packaging at the end of their useful life. Both product stewardship and EPR help to shift the burden of managing solid waste away from municipalities and taxpayers to those who profit from their sale and consumption, especially those players who have the greatest capacity to reduce the environmental costs associated with various products through design choices made at the outset.