E-recycling organization reacts to criticism – part 2

30 Dec

By Geoff Meeker

December 30, 2013 – This week, part two of my interview with Terry Greene, Program Director of the Environmental Products Recycling Association (EPRA), which has come under fire recently for its Environmental Handling Fee (EHF) levied on the purchase of new electronics. Part one appeared in this paper on December 16.

GM: Some talk radio callers have suggested that the EPRA is a mysterious group; that it’s not accountable, could be paying exorbitant salaries to staff and even skimming profits back to manufacturers. What do you say to that?

TG: The reality with EPRA is that we are a non-profit, industry driven organization that is responsible for one small piece of the puzzle. In each province that we operate, we submit a stewardship plan in response to government’s requirement for what is called extended producer responsibility. That is, the responsibility to ensure that products don’t end up going into the landfill is put on the manufacturers and retailers themselves. We manage the program so that those materials can be responsibly collected, transported and recycled with no harm to anybody who is involved in the process. Eighty percent of the dollars collected goes to collection, transportation and recycling. The other 20 percent goes to administrative costs, and advertising to raise public awareness. I work from a home office with a laptop and a cell phone. That’s it. That’s my administrative costs, other than my salary. People have complained about possibly “big salaries being paid to executives.” I’m not going to comment on how much executives are paid because I don’t know how much that is, but… I do get a market value salary here. But exorbitant cost or fees? That’s just not part of the puzzle at all. We have an annual report that is released every year. It is completely transparent in terms of the percentages spent on collections, transportation, processing and administration, and anybody who reads it will see that we are a very lean operation.

GM: What about the accusation that some people in rural areas pay the fee but are too far from drop-off points to practically recycle?

TG: We are still in process of setting up collection locations across the province and are right now aiming to have 21 locations that will be permanent drop-off locations. There are communities across the province that are more rural that will not justify us having a permanent year-round collection location so we will have other things happening, such as annual collection events in more than 30 communities, where people will have an opportunity to bring in any old electronics that they have accumulated.  And we will transport it from that location. We will, for example, have a collection event in all the major coastal communities in Labrador, in Burgeo, Botwood, St. Anthony and areas where it would be cost-prohibitive to set up a permanent facility. This is similar to what is done with household hazardous waste, which is an accepted approach across this province and country. And we are partnering with waste management authorities across the province, to ensure that if someone drops off electronic waste at a landfill it will be diverted for recycling.

GM: Are some of the electronics recycling drop-off points are located in, and piggybacking on, the existing beverage container recycling depots?

TG: Yes. We’re piggybacking as much as possible to manage costs and make drop-offs more convenient. Seventeen of our drop-off points are at Green Depots that are involved in the beverage container and paint return program. They are all private operations and some were willing to get involved in a contract with us and some weren’t.

GM: That is encouraging. One complaint I heard is that there are too many recycling streams in place already, from beverage recycling to curb side blue bags to electronics to the soon-to-be-announced cell phone recycling program.

TG: Yes, that’s right. We tried to get the cell phone program a part of ours as well, but the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association chose to go with its own stewardship plan. But you are absolutely right, there are different streams so as much as possible we’re trying to keep it in the same stream. I was just at the depot in Mount Pearl, and people were coming in with bags of recyclable containers, a TV or stereo, and paint. So there is more and more opportunity to put in place that one stop for people to recycle.

GM: How about the suggestion that a portion of the recycling fee be refundable, as a deposit?

TG: There are a number of points on that. First, we built our fee structure to accommodate costs to collect, transport and recycle electronics. We haven’t built in a surplus amount to cover a refund to the customer. That’s a model that exists across the country and North America, and there’s a reason for that: we represent about 110 products that we will take back from the consumer, so if you assume that there are 110 products being purchased with an associated fee and each has a different refund when it is returned, 10 or 15 years later, to a collection facility, that means there is an administration required for 110 different products, with a refund of anywhere from, say, 50 cents to $6. So administratively, it’s virtually impossible to try to have a refund on such a variety of products, whereas with the beverage container program, you bring in your cans and you paid eight cents and you’re going to get back four, or whatever the numbers may be. Finally, these are durable commodities. You buy your can of soft drink then recycle the container. You buy a TV and have it for 12 or 15 years. So, 15 years from now, you go back to the facility and say you want your $6 refund on a purchase you made 15 years ago. So you can see the problems you’d have administering that kind of program, and the kind of bureaucracy you can create.

GM: What happens to the recycled or reclaimed materials, many of which have some commercial value?

TG: There are two revenue streams for these recycling companies. First, a company like ours would pay a fee to put the materials through a recycling process. Then those things that can be recovered and built into new products are purchased through that stream by the manufacturers. There are some precious metals within that and the philosophy in the manufacturing industry is, if we can get these materials back and build them into computers, for example, then we don’t have to go to a new source for it… and you don’t exhaust your natural resource, in terms of rare metals. But certainly, the business would not exist if it was only to take the products for free and recycle them on the commodities markets. It’s a combination of somebody paying to have it recycled on the front end, and someone paying for the materials on the back end as well.

GM: The fees have become an issue, especially the $42.50 charge on new flat screen TVs.

TG: That fee has drawn the most attention and criticism. The explanation for that is, the size and weight of the kind of legacy materials that have been out there for the last 10, 15, 30 years and more drives the collection and transportation costs significantly. When we have a year or 18 months of data behind us we may have better transportation contracts, perhaps more material coming in with less weight, and that would potentially drive a change in the fee structure. As soon as we can find a way to reduce those fees based on the cost model, then that would be reviewed. The size and weight of the TVs is way out of proportion to everything else and driving the costs significantly. I saw an old floor model TV this morning on a pallet that weighed about 250 pounds, with the stereo unit off to one side. The person who brought that in purchased it perhaps 35 years ago, and now they are finally bringing it into the recycling system. The reality is, there is a lot of stuff coming in that’s 20 or 30 years old. Research shows that it takes about five years to get that old stuff out of the system, meaning that the peak continues for a significant period of time before you see a drop in the tonnage rate of stuff coming in because it’s now newer, rather than older, material.

For more information about the EPRA and its EHF, visit www.recyclemyelectronics.ca/nl.

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