Terrain, May 1, 2002


PU Terrain DA May 1, 2002 The Path to Zero Waste Unlike the US, Europe has learned to make producers responsible for eliminating waste, with remarkable results.

by Alis Valencia

Del Norte County is located along the rugged coast of northern California. It is remote, the population is only 28,000, and the economy has depended on fishing and logging, now largely depleted. In the mid-1990s, the regional water board informed Del Norte officials that the county landfill was sited poorly and lacked a liner to prevent leaching. It would have to be closed, not expanded, when it filled up. The county needed to come up with a new waste plan.

California law requires cities and counties to halve their 1990 waste levels by 2003. Most municipalities look to recycling markets to divert discarded items, but "the challenge for us is that we're far away from recycling markets," said Kevin Hendrick, Solid Waste Program Director, "so we decided to look at ways we can recycle or recover materials as much as possible locally."

The result: In 2000 Del Norte became the first county in the United States to adopt a "zero waste" plan: All materials are recycled, eliminating the need for landfills or incinerators. Resource recovery parks, also known as eco-parks and discard malls, are central to this process, housing clusters of industries that feed on discarded items. These sites would help achieve what the California Resource Recovery Association calls an "Agenda for the New Millennium": zero waste, the end of subsidies for wasteful manufacturing, and jobs from discards.

"We wanted to apply those principles locally," said Tedd Ward, Recycling Coordinator for Del Norte County.

With grant funding, and with consultation from the California Resource Recovery Association, the county has charged ahead, targeting a seven- acre industrial site south of Crescent City for a new waste transfer station and a resource recovery park, to open in 2003. It will have facilities for salvage, recycling, sales of used items, materials processing, composting, and office sites to incubate new businesses.

Del Norte County is not alone.

From the zero-waste mandates of 33 New Zealand district councils to a Toronto task force calling for 100% diversion from landfills by 2010, zero-waste initiatives have flowered in more than 50 municipalities in 10 countries, including Great Britain, Korea, South Africa, Taiwan, and Australia.

In Berkeley, Daniel Knapp, president of Urban Ore, has been leading efforts to create a three-acre eco-park to house his business and six or seven other recovery operations, including computer recycling and furniture-crafting with recovered wood. In a temporary building, the furniture operation is open; computer recyclers are expected to move on-site as early as May; and the new Urban Ore itself, on the renovated first floor, is set to open as early as March.

But the most advanced effort is in Canberra, Australia's capital city, with a population of 310,000. Its No Waste by 2010 initiative began in 1996. By the five-year mark, Canberra had:

More than doubled the garbage it has captured for reuse, and decreased waste to landfill by 40 percent.

Begun operating two power stations fueled by methane from its landfills, expected to produce enough electricity to power 3,000 homes for as long as 30 years.

Developed a temporary resource recovery park at a landfill site, bringing in 36 businesses to reduce or recycle waste, including one that turns construction debris into road-

making materials.

Created "Earth Works," a 25-hour community education program on waste issues, waste reduction practices, and practical skills such as composting and no-dig gardening.

Established the Australian Reusable Resources Network, a free internet service connecting sellers and buyers of reusable materials.

"The greatest impact of the No Waste strategy so far has been the increase in size of the resource recovery and recycling industries," said Margaret Nicholson, a project officer for No Waste by 2010. "Several million dollars has been invested in infrastructure, and more than 150 local jobs have been created."

Ultimately, she said, "The whole community will think of unwanted materials as resources rather than waste."

But municipalities alone cannot achieve Zero Waste. The Canberras of the world are at the end of a long pipeline.

"Waste is the result of bad design and, ultimately, bad decision- making," said Eric Lombardi of EcoCycle, a nonprofit recycler in Boulder, Colorado. "The concept of Zero Waste leads upstream to the designer's desk, where waste needs to be designed out."

Lombardi cited four guiding principles for achieving Zero Waste: make producers responsible for the waste and environmental impact their products create; invest in infrastructure rather than landfills and incinerators; end taxpayer subsidies for wasteful and polluting industries such as mining and oil; and create jobs and new businesses from discards.

These principles set out a key question: How can communities shift the burden of waste back to its source -- producers?

One strategy, known as "Extended Producer Responsibility," provides an answer: "Shift the financial responsibility for managing products at the end-of-life from government and taxpayers to industry," said Bette Fishbein, a senior fellow at the New York-based research organization INFORM, Inc. "When the cost of end-of-life is built into the bottom line, the company that makes a product that is less wasteful and more recyclable gets a financial benefit."

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) puts the burden squarely on manufacturers: If they fail to reduce waste, they pay. If they succeed, they benefit. But they are not allowed to pass the buck to communities such as Del Norte County, Canberra, or Berkeley. Companies are not told how to achieve results; and innovation, left up to them, tends to happen. "The economic incentives for change are there," said INFORM's Fishbein. "Our research indicates that this does lead to the desired results."

Of the more than 25 countries that require companies to take back their packaging, those in Europe (Germany, Belgium, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, for example) have the most extensive EPR mandates, focused on such things as batteries, autos, consumer electronics, and electric appliances, in addition to packaging.

In 1991, Germany passed its Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste. This assigned to manufacturers and distributors of all packaging, including glass, plastic, and metal containers, full responsibility for recovery, reuse, or recycling of the material they generate. The ordinance imposed a quota for refillable bottles and set targets, by weight, for materials to be recycled.

In the German program, enforcement is based on a simple incentive. The producer-funded organization Duales System Deutschland (DSD) collects the green-dot-labeled packaging of at least 19,000 licensees. These licensees, the manufacturers of packaged products or of packaging, pay fees based on the weight and material of their packaging to cover the costs of processing, so it makes sense for the companies to use not only more recyclable materials but also less packaging.

Ulf Jaekel, of Germany's Federal Ministry for the Environment, reported that by 1998, packaging overall had become lighter and smaller, and lower-fee cardboard was replacing higher-fee plastic and glass. In 2000, German consumers carried home 17% less packaging than in 1991. From 1992 to 1997 alone, per capita use of packaging in the the United States increased 15%, with no indication that the trend has reversed.

In Germany, recycling capacities for all materials have increased -- for example, from a capacity to recycle 20,000 tons of plastic packaging in 1990 to more than 500,000 tons in 1997. In 2000, the DSD recovered 93% of its plastics and 91% of its glass. The numbers in the United States are 5.3% and 26%.

In the past few years, Europe has expanded its efforts. In 2000, for example, the European Union directed automakers to ultimately take back and recycle all cars registered after July 1, 2002; to eliminate, with some exceptions, the use of lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium by July 1, 2003; and to increase the proportion of recyclable components in new autos to a minimum of 85% of vehicle weight by 2006. Two EU directives moved closer to passage in 2001, together requiring producers to take back, recycle, and phase out electronic waste, including toxic chemicals.

Few hard figures are available on the early effects of the initiatives. But they represent a considerable advance over what has taken place in the United States.

"Industry wants voluntary programs," said Fishbein. "So governments often say that they will try voluntary programs first to see if they accomplish the objectives. This happened with packaging in Germany and many other programs. But when objectives were not met, mandates were passed."

Despite the European experience, the US Environmental Protection Agency has not advocated EPR, on the recommendation of President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD). Industry representatives objected heatedly to the concept of extended producer responsibility during proceedings of the PCSD. Instead they proposed extended product responsibility.

Extended Product Responsibility, now called "product stewardship," makes everyone responsible for the health and environmental impact of a product: those who design, manufacture, sell, use, and end up with the product. But making everyone responsible for everything "means no one is responsible for anything," said Fishbein.

The sole US nationwide program, the takeback of rechargeable batteries, is a case in point.

In response to legislation by eight states limiting disposal options for batteries, the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association promoted the federal Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996. This reduced the barriers to a national system of battery collection, and preempted further state legislation. But the resulting program was voluntary, included no mandates -- and has quietly fizzled.

Created and funded by industry members, the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) administers collection and recycling. In 1997, RBRC reported a 22% collection rate. Since then, it has revised its goals downward and in 1998 stopped reporting a collection rate altogether, replacing this figure with total weight of batteries collected. According to INFORM's estimates for the year 2000, RBRC collected less than 10% of the Ni-Cd batteries that entered the waste stream, far below its goal of 35%. "There is a built-in disincentive for them to do well," said Alicia Culver of INFORM. "The more batteries collected, the more companies must pay because they ante up for the recycling."

Now batteries are piling up. According to INFORM, Americans throw out approximately 179,000 tons of batteries a year -- 14,000 tons of them rechargeables.

Computer and other electronic waste is also mounting. According to the Global Futures Foundation, approximately 300,000 tons of it ended up in US landfills in 2000, an amount the foundation predicts will increase fourfold within the next decade.

Companies in this country have barely touched the problem. One measure of this is the annual Computer Report Card, released in November by the San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) and other members of the Computer TakeBack Campaign. The Report Card evaluates the data posted on 28 computer companies' websites for an analysis of environmental, health, and safety concerns; in 2001, it shows just three US companies (IBM, HP, Apple) in its top ten -- the rest are from Japan, which has EPR mandates for packaging and electronics.

Moreover, many companies that meet higher standards outside the US do not pursue the same practices here: IBM, Apple, and Sony have free computer takeback programs in Europe but not in the US -- where they charge consumers $30 (IBM); have no program (Apple); or have a geographically restricted program (Sony). The US operations of Philips, a leader in Europe, scored well below the median.

Industry representatives are trying to fend off US mandates or regulatory action. "For many years, at the design stage, the industry has been voluntarily reducing the environmental impact of products throughout their lifecycle," said Holly Evans of the Electronic Industries Alliance, in Arlington, Va. "We also have a web-based consumer education initiative [on] local reuse and recycling opportunities."

In June 2001, industry representatives entered a year-long dialogue with counterparts from government agencies, environmental groups, and retail business to craft a voluntary national program for takeback, reuse, and recycling of electronic products.

Voluntary indeed.

Many companies have avoided the dialogue, called the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI): "Fifteen corporate stakeholders are supposed to be at the table," Ted Smith, of SVTC, said, "but most of the US companies have not participated; it's mostly Japanese and European companies. Even if they could sort through all of the difficult issues and come to some kind of agreement, involving companies like IBM and Dell that are not at the table would be difficult."

In the vacuum, communities are struggling to deal with the pileup of batteries, computers, and other junk. New Jersey, which banned rechargeable batteries from the waste stream in 1992 but has failed to enforce that ban, is hiring INFORM to help state agencies comply with the law -- and to help them negotiate with the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. The agencies want the RBRC to stop charging battery-pickup fees to state agencies and public institutions. In 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a resolution urging increased battery recycling and limits on use of nonrechargeable batteries. Officials are now preparing an ordinance that mandates the use of rechargeable batteries, said Mark Westlund of San Francisco's Commission on the Environment.

In California alone, proper disposal of computer monitors and other products containing cathode-ray tubes -- which are banned from landfills because they contain hazardous levels of lead and other substances -- would cost up to $1 billion, according to Poison PCs and Toxic TVs, a report by SVTC, Materials for the Future, and Californians Against Waste. As San Jose City Council member Cindy Chavez put it in an SVTC press release: "Local taxpayers are not in a position to shoulder the staggering costs of cleaning up [these] hazardous wastes."

With just one nationwide takeback program -- the failed one for batteries -- the United States lags behind other industrialized nations. Why?

An easy answer is space. Room for landfills seems abundant, and costs for waste transfer remain low, so there is little financial incentive to seek alternatives. Many Americans, said Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism, have never seen the consequences of intensive industrialization, like Germany's forest die-off and burning Danube River: "Americans who are in power generally haven't felt the impact of waste," he told Terrain. "The people who have felt it have been the minority communities and people of color living downwind from the landfills and factories."

Neil Seldman of the Washington DC-based Institute for Local Self- Reliance said a space-squeezed Europe has been forced to address these issues. "Their immediate response was incineration, but that has proven to be unacceptable in most countries, and therefore they've had to move quicker and further [on eliminating waste] than the United States."

Also, said Seldman, Western European countries have a much greater sense of "communal effort" than the United States. "Socialist parties and labor unions... have considerable influence in the political arena," he said. "There's much more support for government intervention and regulation." And so business has less power to externalize its costs. "European countries tend to have mixed economies, where the public has a much bigger say than in market economies like the United States. Therefore, Europeans go directly to the source of the problem -- the manufacturers. Also, historical factors have caused the centralization of power in Europe, but decentralization in the United States. Change comes from the top down in Europe; from the ground up here."

I f the ground shifts a bit here, EPR mandates will spur innovations. It takes only a little imagination to see the likely scenarios: Phaseouts of the cadmium, lead, and mercury content of batteries will not only reduce the risks of toxic exposure but also provide incentive for developing and manufacturing solar cells or other clean new sources of power. The prohibitions and penalties against waste will ultimately make such alternative power sources cost less -- and last longer -- than batteries. Less wasteful, more efficient manufacturing and recycling will use less power -- and materials. To avoid mandated payments for environmental damage, the mining, oil, and chemical industries might also adopt the precautionary principle, scaling down and transforming practices in the process.

To Hawken, the main obstacle is misapprehension and fear on the part of business and government. "We are a leader in technology, but socially and culturally we're 20 to 30 years behind Europe," he says. "I don't know when we'll grow up. But when we do, we can do amazing things."

Alis Valencia, a writer and editor, lives on the Mendocino Coast.

Copyright Terrain magazine, published by the Ecology Center, 2530 San Pablo Avenue (near Dwight Way), Berkeley, CA 94702; tel: 510-548-2220; fax: 510-548-2240; info@ecologycenter.org