With state and local governments in a budget squeeze, product stewardship is starting to look more attractive as a means to save taxpayers money, aside from any environmental benefits. That could also result in some new opportunities for commercial recyclers. Though e-waste has gotten the most attention by far, states like Rhode Island are beginning to look at a range of other products that are ripe for lifecycle management. In fact, Rhode Island appears to be ready to assume a leadership role in expanding the field, with new proposed product stewardship legislation that starts with mattresses, syringes and paint, and also allows for more additions in the future.
Product Stewardship and Other Standards
Product stewardship laws are relatively new, but the concept has much in common with other product regulations that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past couple of generations, including those covering white goods. The basic idea is that certain kinds of consumer products can have a significant, collective negative impact on public health and public budgets, but those effects can be mitigated by requiring manufacturers and consumers to adhere to some rules. That’s the concept behind banning lead in gasoline, setting efficiency standards for cars, appliances and light bulbs, and setting safety standards for products like cribs – to say nothing of alcohol and drug regulations, but that’s a whole other can of worms. In the case of electronic products, the sheer volume of discarded goods and the large amounts of toxic substances they contain add up to a considerable burden on taxpayers for waste disposal, providing a justification for recycling regulations.
Beyond E-Waste: Mattresses
Rhode Island’s shortlist of items targeted for new product stewardship regulations is an interesting mix. Mattresses are one priority because they are large, heavy, and numerous. They also have the potential to become valuable commodities in recycling for fabrics, metals, and petroleum-based foams. Manufacturers are already responding to a growing interest in “green” mattresses, so it’s also possible that a growing proportion of mattresses in the future will contain more easily recyclable or biodegradable components. Carpet recycling is beginning to catch on, so that might be another area of focus for forward-thinking states like Rhode Island.
Recycling Paint and Syringes
The commercial market for paint recycling has yet to emerge in a big way, but California and Oregon are two states that have already started mandatory lifecycle management for paint. Paint costs taxpayers an estimated $8 per gallon to dispose, which probably explains why it made Rhode Island’s short list. Like mattresses and e-waste, paint is also a high-volume waste. Though syringes are small individually, their numbers add up and are bound to grow, given demographic and health trends in the U.S., unless medical technology comes up with more transdermal and other non-stick substitutes. If recycling markets are not viable for these products, then commercial waste disposers have an opportunity.
Opportunities in Product Stewardship…Or Not
Though product stewardship regulations have a downside for manufacturers, they also create opportunities for new and growing businesses. Beth Quimby over at pressherald.com has an insightful piece on the benefits of Maine’s e-waste law, which dates back to 2004. So far the law has saved about $7 million in municipal taxes, and has created new employment for state residents. Unfortunately, for reasons unclear Maine’s new Governor Paul LePage seems ready to roll back the law, so stay tuned.
Image (cropped): Mattresses by soundfromwayout on flickr.com.