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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Producer responsibility legislation will be reintroduced

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Donna Walsh has been one of the leading champions of legislation to require producers of dangerous or hard to dispose of products to take responsibility for safe disposal and recycling.
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has a long history with trash. It was the first state, in 1986, to enact mandatory recycling. It also was an early adopter of take-back programs for car batteries and tires.
During a recent Statehouse hearing of the new Senate commission studying comprehensive statewide waste reduction, much of this history was recounted by the people who helped shape it.

Victor Bell helped launch Rhode Island’s recycling and waste programs while running the Office of Environmental Coordination from 1978-92. Today Bell owns a sustainable packaging company in Jamestown, and is one of four waste experts advising lawmakers on establishing another first. This latest waste concept would establish a comprehensive trash-reduction program called extended producer responsibility (EPR). In theory, EPR gives incentives to makers and seller of goods to dispose, reuse or recycle all or part of their products and the packaging.
Producer responsibility sounds complicated, but it’s already happening in Rhode Island with mercury auto switches and thermostats, electronic waste and soon house paint.
“It’s designed to create a system of shared responsibility from all parties in the consumer chain,” said Jamie Rhodes, director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island, who also serves on the commission.
The new paint collection program became law earlier this year. It's unique as an industry-run model rather than the state or municipal programs like those for old mattresses or used motor oil.
“What this is, is a major shift of the responsibility of recycling and disposal from the local government to private industry,” Bell said.
Comprehensive producer responsibility programs, which include packaging, are gaining acceptance around the world. Waste in the United States, however, is regulated by states, so a patchwork of programs are in place across the country, including 10 states with bottle bills.
Rhode Island, Bell noted, nearly passed a bottle bill in 1984, but as a compromise to industry opposition, lawmakers approved a litter and recycling tax. The tax plan received accolades for funding and growing waste and recycling programs in the state, until a large portion of the money was diverted from waste projects to the state’s general fund. Bell explained that industry groups are justifiably skeptical of state-run programs because of the risk the money will be used elsewhere.
“That’s why everyone is moving from government control to government oversight (programs),” he said.
The new paint collection program is regulated by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), but managed by an independent group and funded by a tax added to the purchase price of paint cans.  
Other EPR bills have been introduced, but not passed, that create similar collection programs for used CFL light bulbs, mattresses and medical sharps. The new comprehensive program would also include reducing waste created by packaging, which accounts for 33 percent of all waste. 
The project also aims to increase municipal recycling rates, and even create jobs by enticing businesses to the state that would recycle glass and Styrofoam. Food waste programs and even incinerators are possible topics for discussion.
Sarah Kite, director of recycling services for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), said an analysis of the state's waste stream last done in 1994 may help determine which areas to target. Much of the nearly 15 items RIRRC collects are sold as a global commodities, she said. Some 20 containers are shipped daily from the Central Landfill around the country and to China.
“Waste should be thought of as a resource. Waste should not be thought of as waste anymore,” Kite said.
The special commission expects to deliver a draft program to the Legislature in March. The commission meets again Dec. 6.