Tag Archives: batteries

Real Product Sustainability Requires a Lifecycle Approach

Every two weeks, PSI members and partners receive updates on product stewardship news from around the world. A recent NY Times article on battery recycling caught my attention because it illustrated how product sustainability requires a full lifecycle perspective — not only a focus on end of life. The December 8 front-page story described how processing methods used at a Mexican plant for recycling vehicle and industrial batteries from the U.S. are poisoning workers and citizens. The batteries are recovered — mostly voluntarily — at a very high rate in the U.S., without the need for an extended producer responsibility system, because there is great demand for the lead in the batteries. However, those collecting the batteries are skirting U.S. laws by shipping the batteries to poorly run facilities in Mexico. The money saved by companies is at the expense of the health of workers, citizens, and the environment. It is also at the expense of U.S. companies that are abiding by more protective standards in the U.S. There is truly no such thing as a free lunch. We need to level the global playing field so that U.S. companies do not lose business to companies operating abroad under insufficient standards. We should require U.S. companies to certify that they are using material processors that truly protect the environment all throughout the product lifecycle. This is real product sustainability. It is time for U.S. citizens to demand global environmental and social standards of protection for the products they consume.

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In Search of Honest Dialogue: Six Stages of Industry Grief

The Product Stewardship Institute was founded in 2000 to establish cooperative agreements with stakeholders to reduce the lifecycle health and environmental impacts from consumer products. Most advocates at the time pointed their fingers only at producers, suggesting that the responsibility was solely theirs. Instead, PSI said the responsibility was shared among all stakeholders, but that producers had primary responsibility for financing and managing the system. This nuanced framing of the product stewardship movement as having a lead actor with a strong supporting cast helped the movement take hold in the U.S.

Over the past decade, PSI has knocked on the proverbial door of over 15 industry sectors and offered to work collaboratively to reduce the unintended lifecycle impacts resulting from their products. Companies, like the people who run them, have responded in a variety of ways. These responses usually fit within a trajectory of perspectives that reflects the culture of the industry sector and the individuals who lead them. Whether and how these perspectives change through discourse is also a reflection of the industry, its leadership, and external influence and circumstances. In general, PSI’s experience is that the perspective of most industry sectors proceeds along the following path during the course of a dialogue: (1) there is no problem; (2) government should do more to address the problem; (3) more funding is not needed; (4) government programs should be paid for through a visible consumer fee; (5) industry programs are more efficient so the private sector should take programmatic control; (6) don’t hold us responsible for meeting performance goals.

Of the industries we work with, only two manufacturers – paint and rechargeable batteries – have fully engaged government, and both were responding to the threat of legislation. Perhaps the paint industry learned from previous legislative battles on lead paint and volatile organic compounds and saw how it could benefit from the unified national process that PSI offered. Maybe the rechargeable battery industry learned that collaboration with governments was needed to implement its own voluntary producer responsibility program. Whatever the case, the rest of the industries have either refused to engage in a constructive dialogue about the problems caused by their products or they engaged for a period of time, sometimes up to six years, before digging in against further discussion.

The six phases above have been called Industry Stages of Grief by my colleagues in the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment. These phases represent the progression of perspectives that most corporate executives go through when they are confronted with problems caused by their products. No company likes to be told that their products cause pollution and add to the financial strain of governments. None wants to be asked to change its business practices, since change will always mean an investment of resources. The key is whether a company or an industry sector is willing to learn, and also believes it can convince other stakeholders of its viewpoint. I have found that all stakeholders have the potential to change their positions once they engage in dialogue. This change of perspectives happened at every one of PSI’s dialogues, no matter which industry sector we engaged. Government officials learned as much as their industry colleagues, and all positions were influenced as a result.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing now is a merging of companies into Corporate America that believes that it doesn’t need to engage, doesn’t need to listen, and doesn’t need to do very much of anything it doesn’t want to do. And this is a very dangerous place for them to be. Remember the car companies that fought against fuel efficiency standards for so long and so hard that they lost out to foreign auto makers that figured out how to make high quality fuel efficient vehicles? That is what is taking place right before our eyes with regard to the use of natural resources in consumer products. Our industries are saying Hell No to any regulation, even if it means a level playing field for each one of them to compete for recovering valuable materials. If they keep up their antics, they are destined to end up in the auto junkyard and waste yet another opportunity. And guess who will be clamoring for a government bailout when they wake up?

To be sure, there are companies that are engaging with external stakeholders and have figured out how to make social and environmental sustainability a key component of their business models. For many others, it is difficult to break from the pack.

The Industry Stages of Grief outlined above is a general guide. Manufacturers enter at different places along this trajectory, and proceed at different speeds. All stakeholder viewpoints must evolve to some degree for negotiations to be successful. It takes a commitment of resources for groups of individuals who represent divergent viewpoints to jointly embrace a common idea. There is a dynamic tension that occurs in negotiations. For the dialogue to succeed, the pace of change must meet the expectations of the stakeholders, particularly the governments that now pay a huge cost to manage waste. Progress must be fast enough to keep them from unilaterally legislating. On the other hand, if these regulators proceed too quickly, before strong coalitions can be formed to support the desired changes, they risk not only alienating the industry groups they want to engage but other key stakeholders as well.

Gilles Goddard, an industry representative from Canada, uses the following phrase to capture the delicate dance of negotiations: “You can’t pull a flower to make it grow.” Negotiations take time, perseverance, and the right individuals who want to reach an agreement. Timing is a key element. If government pushes too hard or pulls too fast, it can ruin the chance for success. But if industry moves too slowly, it can also sour the opportunity for an agreement, and result in unilateral government legislation.

Honest dialogue anyone? Is there anybody out there?

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Who Pays for Product Stewardship?

Below is a blog post by Scott Cassel, Executive Director of the Product Stewardship Institute, in preparation for the PSI Networking Webinar, “Who Pays for EPR? Producers, Consumer Fees, Taxes, and Political Perceptions,” on Wednesday, May 18th (1:00-2:30 p.m. EST). Please join us for the dialogue.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s what my environmental science professor told me many years ago. He was referring to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which, according to Wikipedia, “…means that the universe as a whole is ultimately a closed system—there is no magic source of matter, energy, light, or indeed lunch—that does not draw resources from something else, and will not eventually be exhausted.”

Ever since being introduced to this phrase, I have found myself repeating it when I want to make a point about not getting something for nothing. Advertisements that promote free vacations and free stuff always come with a hitch…like grabbing your email address for endless promotions, or fine print on forms that sign you up for costs when an initial free promotion runs out.  You know the deal.

So why do some people want a free lunch when it comes to the environment?

These people don’t want their taxes to go up, and they don’t want to pay more for a product at the store, yet they want a clean environment. Why is that?

Here is my understanding. Most people really do want a clean environment. And they want to leave clean air, clean water, healthy land, and lots of other stuff to their kids and grand kids. Unfortunately, no one told them about the true costs for these benefits and, even if they knew those costs, they would need to be convinced that the money they paid was used efficiently and effectively. But here’s the kicker – none of us really knows the true costs of the products we are consuming at a record pace. That beautiful silver cup in your cupboard came from mined materials that have their own impacts on worker safety and health and the environment. That hand-crafted wooden crib for the new baby came from lumber that was certified by some organization whose stamp of approval states that the trees from which it came were harvested with great care. And the jeans you just bought are made from cotton grown somewhere under conditions that required a lot of resources, then dyed with who knows what type of chemicals that were treated in some way that was hopefully protective of the environment and worker safety, and did not use child labor.

Wow! Is it no wonder that we bury our heads in the sand and move on with our lives… making a living, fixing dinner, creating a home, and staying out of debt. And when it comes to paying for the stuff we use, we all want it for the cheapest price.

Remember the credit card bubble, the real estate bubble, and the housing bubble? We are now in the environmental bubble. The real truth is that most of us really don’t have a clue about the environmental and social impacts caused by the products we buy. But we are about to find out, and then we will have burst yet another unsustainable bubble.

Let me pose a hypothetical question. What if you knew that Product A had a negative impact on the water that you and I dearly value, while Product B did not? And what if Product B cost only a few cents more than Product A? Like most people, you would probably choose Product B.

Now what if Product B was more than a little bit more expensive than Product A? Would you choose it anyway? Fewer people would. They will look harder at the trade-off, and wonder whether the negative impact from Product A was really that much worse than Product B. And how would they really know? Who really knows how either Product A or Product B was made? Even if we had some idea, we are all not scientists who can stop in our tracks and calculate the impacts of every purchasing decision we make. And what if Product A performed a lot better than Product B, or you didn’t want to risk the switch and find out? What would you do then?

It’s no wonder that we don’t want to wrap our brains around the full cost of producing the goods we consume. We’d go nuts!

But we have to start somewhere.

Many companies have begun expensive and time-consuming lifecycle assessments to better understand the environmental impacts of their products all along their lifecycle, from mining, to manufacture, to use, and finally disposal. These tools have advanced our understanding of product impacts. But progress has been slow, and these assessments are often best when comparing one variable against another. Taking this information to the public so they can make purchasing decisions is still years away.

What can we do right now?

Pass product stewardship laws of course!

Product stewardship systems hold manufacturers responsible for reducing the impacts of their products. These systems provide a financial incentive for companies to design products so that they use fewer and less toxic materials and choose materials that have a market value and can be processed and re-sold after use. Product stewardship acknowledges that there are no free lunches. There is a cost to the environment when we make and use products, and there is a cost to minimize those impacts.

If we want clean water and air, green jobs, and lower costs to government, the consumer will pay more than what they pay now for many products. While toner cartridges and lead acid car batteries have a value at “end-of-life” that exceeds the cost of collection and processing, carpet, paint, compact fluorescent lamps, most electronics, and many other products don’t. The product stewardship movement has begun to reverse these external costs on the environment.

We all know that the consumer will pay at the end of the day…because there is no such thing as a free lunch…and manufacturers cannot be expected to eat the extra cost. But what if the manufacturer of Product A and the manufacturer of Product B were both required to set up systems to ensure that their products were collected and properly managed when consumers no longer wanted them? And what if these two companies truly included all the lifecycle costs of making and using their products? Only then will you have the real choice between products, since the societal cost of making that product will be included in the price you pay. But how much will you be willing to pay, and for what level of environmental and social benefit? How will you know that the impacts of making that product were truly incorporated in what you paid? And what value do you place on those benefits as compared to your neighbor? This is the bulls-eye for the debate on product stewardship.

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It’s Dark Down There: More Reasons to Recycle

Below is a blog post by Tom Rhoads, Executive Director of the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency in New York State in preparation for the PSI Networking Webinar, “Promoting the Extraction of Virgin Materials: How Subsidies Impact Product Sustainability,” on Wednesday, June 15th (2:00-3:30 p.m. EST). Please join us for the dialogue.

We can never get too many good news stories in this day and age. The Chilean miners’ rescue is certain to be one of the top stories of the year for 2010. I was born in a mine town, and although I never spent a full day working underground, I have toured several deep mines. The darkness is absolute when the lights go off. You literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. To be trapped thousands of feet underground is, for me, incomprehensible. To carry any faith in rescue after days of no contact was marvelous and probably a genuine life saver.

I recently read that these miners were harvesting copper ore that was less than one percent copper. Copper is a common metal, but its value has risen enough to drive men 2,300 feet below the earth’s surface. In previous accidents at this very same mine, men died for ore with one percent copper.

Many other metals and minerals are hotly pursued across the globe. Mines in remote Canada and Indonesia have become targets of billion dollar investment takeovers. China made recent world news and sent ripples down economic spines when it declared a suspension to the export of so-called rare earth minerals (those needed in everyday electronics, communication devices, and high-tech batteries and magnets common to many tools and most high-efficiency transportation.)

Can you guess where I am headed? In the United States, only about 60 percent of the U.S. population even has access to basic curbside recycling for containers and printed materials. (USEPA, 2008). In New York, I travel through several areas that offer no curbside recycling for packages, containers, and printed materials. Zero recycling. You see, recycling and recycling infrastructure have a cost. That cost is in addition to the cost of trash disposal. The regional agency I work for, the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA), uses the revenues we earn from trash disposal and recovered energy from the trash to pay for the entire program. OCRRA’s disposal fee is more than the cost of landfill disposal, but OCRRA’s tipping fee covers the costs and benefits of Household Hazardous Waste Events, recycling infrastructure, battery collections, free recycling assistance and supplies for businesses, Earth Day Litter Clean-Up, OCRRA’s newsletter, and much, much, more. Even the curbside blue bin for recyclables is paid for with the trash disposal tipping fee. The cost of these programs puts pressure on OCRRA’s tipping fee and the resources of many other local governments providing similar programs. And as we continue to reduce the amount of trash through waste reduction and recycling programs, OCRRA (like many other local governments) is actually penalized for its recycling efforts with reduced revenue in its primary funding source – trash disposal fees.

We constantly reflect on how to pay for waste reduction and recycling programs. But there is a better question to consider: what does it cost us not to recycle? When we send miners into remote and deadly environments, because it costs a little more up front to develop recycling infrastructure, is that really the way to keep score? If China has a lock on minerals needed for the next generation of economic growth or energy-efficient technology, can our children (and their children) really afford us tossing away cell phones, batteries, or old electronics that are far richer in mineral content than ore from a mine?

I hope you agree that these and other similar questions need to be asked when we discuss the cost to recycle, or how to pay for a system that places a priority on reduction, reuse, recycling, and recovery before landfilling.  Extended Producer Responsibility laws for e-waste have been tremendous vehicles to fund e-waste recycling infrastructure across the U.S. EPR strategies also have worked in Canada and Europe for other recyclables as well – including packaging and printed materials.

The faith of the Chilean miners to be rescued was probably their life saver. Faith in rescue, leadership during the crisis, oh yeah – and a $20,000,000 rescue effort watched by the world for 69 days; those were the story lines in Chile in 2010. Perhaps we can also consider that product stewardship by the manufacturer (thereby better engaging the consumer) for waste reduction and recycling is the form of leadership needed to avoid another crisis-making headline in the future.

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