Legislature Debates “Product Stewardship” of Batteries, Paint & Lights

(Photo: Wikipedia)
(Photo: Wikipedia / Mohylek)

Modern life is permeated by the anxiety that we’re poisoning our environment without being aware of it. Yes, it can go too far (think of those 12-step how-to-recycle signs distinguishing between straws and plastic caps for cups), but it can also prompt huge changes in what’s shipped by the ton to landfills.

At the moment, the State Legislature is considering three of those troublesome products that no one quite knows what to do with — rechargeable batteries, unused paint, and CFL and fluorescent lights (which contain mercury). The Small Rechargeable Battery Stewardship Act (HB 1364 / SB 5457) and Paint Product Stewardship Bill (HB 1579 / SB 5424) are, in something of a first, backed by product manufacturers.

Senator Doug Ericksen (R-42nd)
Senator Doug Ericksen (R-42nd)

Swimming against the tide is Republican majority whip Doug Ericksen, who’d prefer consumers figure out what to do with mercury-containing CFLs and fluorescent lights on their own. SB 5658 would repeal a product stewardship program supposed to go into effect this year. Coincidentally, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association has helpfully colored in bright red the states that want to keep you safe from mercury exposure.

Sidebar: At this year’s state Republican meet-up, the Roanoke conference, one of the subjects was “Republicans are Good Stewards of the Environment: How Do We Let the Voters Know?” What do you think? If loosening mercury regulations won’t do it, what will? In fairness, Senator Ericksen is joined by co-sponsors McAuliffe and Hobbs, both nominally Democrats. The repeal passed out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment & Telecommunications, and is off to the Rules Committee.

The idea of product stewardship is central to the practice of sustainability — it pushes manufacturers and product designers to add up the life-cycle costs of their product before setting it loose on store shelves, and outsourcing any disposal or clean-up costs to local government. In some cases, manufacturers may agree to take back products containing necessary but dangerous materials; in others, they might decide that the life-cycle cost of a product (glow-in-the-dark decals powered by uranium!) is simply too expensive.

The rechargeable battery bill supports an existing voluntary recycling program, Call2Recycle, requiring all rechargeable battery manufacturers to pay into the program. Call2Recycle members understandably want to level the playing field. Your first thought is probably of stand-alone rechargeable AA batteries, but almost every portable electronic device contains rechargeables: your camera, toothbrush, razor, phone, tablet, alarm clock, kitchen scale…. The bill has yet to pass out of committee.

Since 1996, Call2Recycle says, they’ve collected more than 70 million pounds of batteries. In 2012, in North America alone, they recycled 10 million pounds in batteries. (Here’s a map of Call2Recycle locations. They also have suggestions on recycling other items. You’re allowed to toss alkaline batteries now, since they no longer contain mercury, but even so, steel, zinc, and manganese don’t really spruce up a landfill. Total Reclaim will take them.)

The paint recycling bill, similarly, authorizes paint manufacturers create and fund a statewide paint collection program. The American Coatings Association and Northwest-green companies like Miller Paint say this could help keep millions of gallons of toxic waste out of landfills, incinerators, and waterways. The paint bill has passed out of Energy and Environment & Telecommunications, and was referred to the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee.