So what do we do with our pharmaceuticals, paint, mercury-bearing lamps, electronics..?
We’ve always been good at manufacturing and consuming products…and bad at figuring out what to do with them (and the chemicals it took to make them) once they’ve become obsolete or broken.
by Rick Gilbert (who knows what he is talking about, having made a career out of hazardous waste management.)
In 1976, after evidence of the harmful effects of improper chemical disposal emerged, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulated the disposal of hazardous wastes from large manufacturers and commercial users of these products. It made it illegal to dump large volumes of toxic waste in any old landfill.
What it didn’t do is regulate the disposal of hazardous wastes created by households (say, yours) and smaller businesses. Nearly forty years later, there are still no federal laws in place for homes and small businesses.
In the 1980s, some local governments started handling such wastes. Since then, many state and local governments have enacted their own ordinances to keep these materials from entering landfills not able to safely process poisonous chemicals.
If your community has such a program, consider yourself lucky—many areas of the US still lack this service.
Unfortunately, local governments quickly find out that managing hazardous waste is pricey. Since most people/small businesses wait until they have a lot of waste before bringing it in for disposal, charging them the full cost of disposal at the time of drop-off would only encourage us to throw our toxic materials in the trash. Given the economic downturn, and its impact on local government budgets, many programs now accept less and less toxic waste.
Solution: if manufacturers are so good at generating hazardous products, and they’re so expensive to handle once they’re no longer needed, why shouldn’t they be asked to help pay for proper waste management of their products?
People asked this question about electronics toward the end of the 1990s. The explosion of the tech industry rendered electronics (often containing heavy metals like lead and cadmium) obsolete with breathtaking speed. Disassembling electronics and managing their components properly is labor intensive and pricey. Rather than allow these items to go in the trash or pay for the recycling themselves, state and local governments began promoting the idea of “product stewardship.”
“Product stewardship is a principle that directs all participants involved in the life cycle of a product to take shared responsibility for the impacts to human health and the natural environment that result from the production, use, and end-of-life management of the product…Stakeholders typically include manufacturers, retailers, consumers, and government officials.”
Recent legislation proves that this idea can work. On January 1, 2009, the state of Washington enacted an electronics take-back law. It mandated that electronics manufacturers pay for a comprehensive, convenient network of recycling options for customers to deliver their unwanted televisions, computer monitors and CPU’s free of charge.
Last year, this single program kept 38 million pounds of electronics out of area landfills.
The law has standards of management to ensure the recycling is safe and the units don’t become someone else’s environmental and health risk. Currently, 18 states have pending legislation aimed at promoting product stewardship for such problematic wastes as pharmaceuticals, paint, mercury-bearing lamps, and electronics.
But many of these efforts will not be successful. Thanks in part to lobbying efforts by the pharmaceutical industry, a take-back law recently failed in the state of Washington, for example.
For local government programs, one of the most important product stewardship efforts is paint management. Latex and oil based paints make up more than 50% of all materials collected at such programs. Paint eats local government money like no other waste stream. Even though newer latex paints are non-hazardous too, because they’re a liquid they can’t be tossed in the trash. As a result of their collection costs, many programs have stopped taking latex paint—a shame since paint represents such a large part of what people have in their homes, and latex paint can be easily re-blended and recycled. Rather than hassle with solidifying and throwing away the paint, and taking their other wastes to a special location, many residents may simply opt to throw all their household hazardous wastes in the trash along with the dried-up latex paint. This is a big step backward.
Oregon passed a paint product stewardship law that goes into effect this summer. Hopefully the lessons learned from this program, and other product stewardship efforts, will allow other states to pass legislation that will ease the financial burden on local governments and encourage manufacturers to accept responsibility for the products they make.
Find out what you can do by reading up on your state’s toxic disposal regulations here.
Rick Gilbert has worked in the hazardous waste industry for 17 years, and is the hazardous waste program manager for Kitsap County, Washington. He is a member of the Dorje Kasung in the Shambhala Buddhist community.