This piece was originally published in the March 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry.
By Mark Kohorst, Senior Manager, Environment, Health, and Safety, NEMA
In business, as in life, the one constant you can count on is change. This is as true with respect to sustainability as to any corporate initiative or value.
Some changes are more predictable than others, however. In the “who would’ve guessed it” category, it appears the developed world’s love affair with recycling is showing serious signs of abating. The economic and environmental incentives that have made recycling an imperative in modern society are no longer accepted without question.
Last fall, for example, the New York Times printed John Tierney’s long-awaited update of a piece he wrote in 1996 entitled “Recycling Is Garbage.” That original article was a lengthy, well-sourced exposé of uncomfortable realities associated with recycling municipal garbage and a growing list of designated products.
The article set quite a few hairdos on fire in the environmental community, with statements such as “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” Reactions to the piece were broad-based and intense—not surprising given the emotional, political, and economic investments that society had poured into recycling by the mid-1990s.
Yet in his follow-up article two decades later, Mr. Tierney essentially doubles-down on his earlier position, contending that today recycling continues to disappoint on economic and environmental grounds. He summarizes with this:
Cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?
In the manufacturing world, recycling is more than a social prerogative. It is also a business proposition that companies evaluate on a cost-benefit basis as they do other potential “investments.”
For electrical products, NEMA’s position, affirmed by the NEMA Board of Governors in 2006, is that recycling is the preferred option for managing products at end-of-life, as long as “the environmental benefits accrued from collecting and recycling the product can be shown to exceed the costs, fully determined, associated with diversion from the waste stream.”
Unless it makes economic and environmental sense, in other words, recycling electrical products is not a worthwhile endeavor. In most cases, it becomes a company-level determination based on corporate values; the cost to recover, transport, and process spent products; the intrinsic value of those products; and other considerations.
When products contain toxic or highly regulated materials, however, recycling remains appropriate and often is required by law, with manufacturers carrying the burden of funding and implementing programs under prescriptive legislation. Yet policy arguments regarding how the programs are financed and operated continue to be contentious.
But the landscape is changing there also. NEMA members in several product sections have long invested in programs that ensure the proper management of household products that contain mercury (e.g., energy-efficient lamps and mechanical thermostats) and lead, nickel, or cadmium (e.g., rechargeable batteries).
Reconsidering the Existing EPR Model
What’s new is the recognition that the long-touted extended producer responsibility (EPR) model that advocacy groups have rigidly promoted for more than a decade may not be the ideal policy structure after all.
For advocates, the predicted impact of EPR is threefold:
- Manufacturers are forced to internalize the costs of recycling activities into the cost of the product
- By absorbing this cost, manufacturers have an incentive to improve the design of their products to increase recyclability and remove toxic components
- Local governments experience lower solid waste management costs
There are other intended benefits, such as reducing landfill use and stimulating green jobs, but these have been the three principle selling points of the EPR model.
In NEMA’s experience, however, this hasn’t been the reality. Outcome #1 has occurred in that manufacturers have absorbed costs associated with recycling programs and presumably factor those costs into pricing decisions. But there is no compelling evidence that the threat or imposition of EPR mandates has forced the introduction of greener products.
As NEMA members, leading manufacturers of household batteries, energy-efficient lighting, and residential control devices accept environmentally conscious design as a fundamental principle of product development. They compete vigorously on that basis and were doing so well before EPR entered the lexicon.
The stunning evolution of highly efficient LED (light-emitting diode) solutions in place of earlier mercury-based lamps is a clear example; so is the proliferation of lighter, more versatile and powerful batteries and the electronic programmable thermostats that have replaced older mercury-switch units in millions of U.S. homes and businesses.
These achievements stem from strategic investments and design innovations over many years that were aimed at ensuring growth and profitability while advancing sustainability goals at the same time. A flourishing, highly competitive market provides more than enough incentive.
The third predicted benefit of EPR—reducing the costs to local governments (and thus taxpayers) for waste management—is harder to assess. While it’s true that municipal agencies devote substantial resources to manage a variety of “special wastes,” it’s not clear that mandatory EPR programs provide more efficient, less costly solutions. If that were the case, we might expect to see local tax reductions or rebates resulting from the savings generated by these programs, but there is no evidence of this taking place.
So where does that leave us? For NEMA members, the increased skepticism regarding EPR has led to more open and helpful discussion of how industry-funded recycling programs should be structured. Some end-of-life NEMA products are managed under an EPR framework, but years of experience coupled with learnings drawn from other product sectors have made manufacturers more confident about setting terms and determining how best to spend their own money.
Meanwhile, while earlier motivations for recycling may be losing power, others have risen to take their place, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and a “zero-waste” society. That probably means recycling will stay with us as a social and political imperative and advocates will continue to promote EPR.
We have learned much—especially that things are not as they were before.
Before joining NEMA, Mr. Kohorst was an environmental economist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has consulted on environmental and public health issues for more than 20 years.
 Miller, Chaz. “From Birth to Rebirth: Will Product Stewardship Save Resources?” Lecture, American Bar Association Fall Meeting, Indianapolis, IN, Oct 2011.