HAZWASTES: Europe's 'Polluter Pays' Principle Crosses The Ocean

The attitude toward difficult-to-dispose wastes seems clear: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Until recently, manufacturers of such culprits as household paint and oil filters have been considered part of the problem.

Now, however, two North American industry groups are taking a cue from their European counterparts by stepping forward to help bear the burden of waste collection and disposal - both financially and operationally. In January, for example, British Columbia (B.C.) unveiled an industry-funded program for collecting and managing leftover paint, which reportedly comprises approximately 70 percent of the province's household hazardous waste stream.

Through the stewardship program, B.C. paint brandowners provide three options for handling discarded paint. In the first two options, Home Hardware and Sherwin-Williams stores offer return-to-retail programs in which consumers can drop off unused paint at select locations. Both companies accept all paint brands and plan to recycle all reusable latex products. As an incentive, Home Hardware also offers consumers a $5 coupon toward their next paint purchase. Sherwin-Williams currently collects paint from commercial and industrial customers at two stores.

Home Hardware, which accepts paint at 65 stores, has collected approximately 88,000 liter-sized containers of waste paint to date. The supply has remained steady (see graph) since the program became fully operational in February. The retail chain transports the paint to its distribution center where, every couple of weeks, a local waste management company sorts out reusable latex products. The waste management firm then transports non-recyclable paint to several fuel blending programs in the United States (rather than incinerating it). Home Hardware finances the entire collection, transportation and disposal process.

The B.C. Paint Care Association (PCA), a non-profit association representing the remaining 47 brand-owners in the province, offers the third collection option. Working with local governments, PCA is phasing in permanent, community-based collection programs, including fixed or mobile collection facilities, as well as paint exchanges. To fund the program, PCA levies a point-of-sale eco fee of approximately 50 cents per four-liter can. Since September, PCA has collected nearly 538,000 liter containers.

The Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Victoria, B.C., oversees the three programs, setting guidelines for the return-to-retail option and facilitating all agreements with local governments. The maximum penalty for industry non-compliance is $200,000.

As can be expected with any program still in its infancy, the paint stewardship initiative has some faults. For example, Home Hardware is seeing inequities in government enforcement, a company spokesperson said. PCA currently operates only one permanent collection site in the Victoria area, compared to Home Hardware's 65. As result, the retail chain bears the brunt of collection, transportation and disposal costs - without the financial cushioning of a point-of-sale eco fee, the spokesperson said. In addition, more than 90 percent of the paint Home Hardware collects is not its own brand. Consequently, the retail chain is paying more than its fair share, the spokesperson added. In spite of this system's faults, the B.C. ministry hopes to set up similar industry-funded stewardship programs for solvents and pesticides in the near future.

This "polluter pays" principle is hardly a new concept. In recent years, industry-led initiatives have swept across Europe. Until now, however, industry on this side of the Atlantic has been reluctant to join the movement.

Fast on the heels of the B.C. paint industry are U.S. oil filter manufacturers, prepared to share the responsibility for their products' disposal. Faced with the prospect of a Vermont landfill ban in March, the Filter Manufacturers Council (FMC) proposed a compromise: Levy a management fee on new filter sales to finance state-wide filter recycling programs.

The management fee, like the PCA's eco fee, aims to incorporate the product's life-cycle costs into the price paid by consumers. In this way, waste management responsibility is shifted from taxpayer-funded programs to producers and consumers.

FMC's Vermont proposal is part of the association's national effort to increase oil filter recycling. Currently, the average national cost to recycle oil filters is relatively high: approximately 35 cents per filter, according to FMC Executive Director Greg Griggs. This is partially due to a lack of end markets. Many steel mills, for example, are reluctant to accept the filters for fear of contamination by residual oil.

FMC's goal is to develop filters as a commodity scrap product, Griggs said, and thus bring down the costs for recycling. Consequently, FMC members offer workshops on filter management and collection as well as technical training sessions in several states, including Arkansas and California. In addition, FMC has set up a hotline (1-800-99-FILTER) which informs callers of their state's filter management requirements and lists companies that transport, process and recycle filters in each state. As a result of these combined efforts, oil filter recycling is slowly increasing. Griggs estimates the current recycling rate to be between 15 to 20 percent.

As the oil filter and paint programs indicate, the prospects of industry-led product stewardship initiatives in North America are optimistic. Indeed, as state and local officials grapple with rising costs and limited landfill capacity, the demands on manufacturers to share the responsibility for waste disposal can only intensify.