Making a case for EPR

Features - Extended Producer Responsibility

Call2Recycle says mandatory EPR makes sense for the battery industry.

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May 4, 2016
Carl Smith
© Winai_Tepsuttinun | Istockphoto.com

Successful product stewardship organizations need to evolve to keep up with the many changes in consumer behavior and industry advances taking place across the world. Stewardship organizations such as Call2Recycle Inc., North America’s first and largest consumer battery stewardship organization, must keep fine-tuning its program to ensure its long-term viability. This includes fulfilling our charter to keep as many batteries as possible out of the landfill and to ensure that recyclables are used as raw materials to manufacture other products.

Since its inception more than 20 years ago, Call2Recycle has supported voluntary extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws for batteries. The voluntary program, funded by industry stewards (some battery and product manufacturers), has been successful. We have steadily increased collection each year, and last year we reached the milestone of collecting 100 million pounds of batteries. Throughout the history of our organization, Call2Recycle has not seen a reason to seek mandated participation from federal entities, corporations or municipalities.

However, as the global marketplace evolves and an ever-increasing amount of electronic devices are powered by batteries, our attitude fundamentally has changed. The explosion in the production of digital communication devices, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and hand-held gaming systems, has largely contributed to this trend. Accordingly, steward organizations such as ours must adjust recycling programs to keep ahead of the world around us.

LONG-TERM FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY

While voluntary stewardship programs can continue to yield successful rates of collection, this approach can no longer be financially sustained in the battery industry for the long term.

We are in favor of mandatory product stewardship legislation for all battery producers. Here’s why: Our viability depends on stewards funding our program because the proceeds from recycling lead, cadmium, cobalt and other materials captured from used batteries are not sufficient to fund a program.

While our business model is rapidly changing, we are being negatively affected by the following factors, which have a direct impact on our ability to be profitable long term:

  • the unequal playing field resulting from voluntary participation;
  • growing pressure to grant “carve-outs” to industries and special interests, which also creates an unequal playing field;
  • uneven enforcement by state regulatory agencies; and
  • uneven regulatory guidelines that focus on program execution instead of results.

CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

Here are explanations of what is driving each factor:

Unequal playing field. With the proliferation of batteries flooding into the North American marketplace from all over the world, we can no longer ensure battery producers will participate in a voluntary program. In fact, approximately 30 percent of the end-of-life batteries we receive in our program are from companies that do not participate in our program. This places an unfair burden on participating stewards. As the sheer amount of the batteries collected increases, it is extremely difficult for our stewards to agree to fee increases when they know they are paying for the collection of batteries they did not manufacture. We advocate a level playing field for all obligated stewards.

Special interest “carve-outs.” When legislation is under consideration, companies and industries seek exemptions. This includes industries that produce products that contain batteries, such as toys. They assert that the batteries sold with their products are not their responsibility and ask to be exempted. They don’t believe they should be held responsible for the batteries, though they are an integral part of these products. However, these companies should not be given an exemption; they are responsible for choosing their vendors and deciding where to market their products.

With the proliferation of batteries flooding into the North American marketplace from all over the world, we can no longer ensure battery producers will participate in a voluntary program.

In reality, legislation that formalizes exemptions for some industries is much worse than no bill at all. Why? It perpetuates the allowance of companies as “free riders” (nonpayers) in our program, but their batteries still end up in our collection stream without any company assuming responsibility for them. In addition, many of these companies are foreign-based, where identification and enforcement by authorities can be impossible.

Uneven enforcement. Enforcement is a key aspect of compulsory product responsibility. Many jurisdictions that have adopted mandatory EPR requirements for consumer batteries often don’t have the resources or the will to enforce compliance. Our goal is to ensure that stewards participate in a level playing field in the marketplace.

To address this gap, we are requesting the authority to pursue compliance from obligated stewards. A very limited “private right of action” would give us the ability to sue nonparticipating companies to recoup any incurred costs from collecting and recycling their batteries in our program. We would gain the ability to collect from nonparticipating companies without relying on the stretched jurisdictional resources. The state of Vermont included such language in its recently enacted single-use battery legislation.

Focus on execution, not results. A primary consideration in any legislation is balancing highly prescriptive language with vague wording. Some legislative advocates focus on how things are done instead of what is achieved. They favor oversight that includes unrealistic collection rate requirements and heavy-handed program performance monitoring. Highly prescriptive programs often stifle our ability as a stewardship organization to tailor the program to jurisdictional needs, which in turn hurts our collections.

During the past 20 years, we have found that we achieve the best results when the state applies its efforts to requiring program participation by obligated producers, investing in consumer education and facilitating the commercial arrangements necessary for a successful program, leaving the details for execution up to us. Established programs with proven results run by committed stewards have the ability to develop programs that maximize outcomes because they are tailored to the needs of the market in question.

NEXT STEP: COMPULSORY PARTICIPATION

Today, we favor compulsory product stewardship legislation because it delivers a level playing field for all battery producers, regardless of location, size or distribution network. We need to stop financially penalizing those stewards who are committed to proper battery recycling. A product stewardship mandate gives us the greatest opportunity to optimize battery collections over the long term by ensuring each producer is held responsible for the full life cycle of its own products, including their proper recycling and disposal at end of life.

We’ve come a long way in the past two decades by using a voluntary battery recycling program. But we recognize that we must continue to evolve to meet today’s challenges.

Our goal is to optimize our results by encouraging more consumers to recycle batteries, keeping them out of landfills and repurposing them into new products. To achieve this in today’s world, we need mandatory product stewardship legislation that would make free riders accountable for the products they introduce into the marketplace.

Carl Smith is CEO and president of Call2Recycle Inc., based in Atlanta. More information is available at www.call2recycle.org.