Tag Archives: China

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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Sustainable Apparel and the Need for Global Standards

On March 1, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched a new voluntary initiative by leading companies such as Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Patagonia, and Timberland. According to the New York Times, the coalition seeks to develop “…a comprehensive database of the environmental impacts of every manufacturer, component, and process in apparel production, with the aim of using that information to eventually give every garment a sustainability score.”

This initiative marks a turning point for the apparel industry, and offers promise that consumers will be able to make more informed purchasing decisions. This effort is laudable on its own merits. However, in addition, these companies are opening the window to what they don’t know. And in so doing, it is bound to raise some interesting questions, ones that will likely lead to the need for global environmental and social standards for product manufacture. For years, U.S. companies have had to compete with cheaper labor in China, India, and other countries. But are they competing on labor costs and other criteria at the detriment of environmental and social impacts?

In fact, what do we know about the environmental and social impacts caused by manufacturing operations in developing countries? The answer is not much. We do know that many used electronics are shipped from well-meaning companies, government agencies, and non-profits in the U.S. to developing nations to be recycled. It all sounded so good…until the Basel Action Network informed us that many of these operations polluted rivers and sickened unprotected workers. It is likely that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition will find similar operations in which their members are unsuspecting enablers of poor environmental and social practices.  As the New York Times reports, Americans spent nearly $340 billion last year on clothing and shoes, nearly all of which was made in other countries. 

The New York Times article begins with an image of blue dye and other chemicals floating downriver from textile mills in China. An inside photo shows a fabric dyeing factory in Mumbai, India, that appears to provide little to no protection of the environment and workers. Our values, as Americans, are embedded in our laws. We would not want those same practices to take place on American soil. Those who uphold our country’s values for our own people should ensure that their actions are not enabling practices that cause harm to others in far-away places. We should not be exporting jobs to other countries if we are not also requiring that products we buy from companies operating in these countries be made using the same environmental and worker safety standards that we require of companies operating here in the U.S.

Companies participating in sustainable business practices know that you either pay now or pay more later…in the form of health care for sick or injured workers, cleanup of pollution, and replacement of poorly made products.  The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is off to a good start.

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