Solid Waste & Recycling


BC battery recycling and thoughts on externalized costs

The link at the end of this post connects to an article in the Vancouver Sun, about which I became aware through the April 2013 edition of the RECAP email newsletter I receive each month from the Recycling Council of British Columbia (RCBC).

The article, which I highly recommend, gives quite an in-depth look at BC’s battery collection and recycling program, that is gradually creeping toward meetings its program goals, but acknowledges a large gap between the number of batteries sold to consumers, and the number collected annually via the program.

As the article lead states:

“An estimated 600,000 kilograms of batteries are dumped in landfill sites every year in Metro Vancouver, despite a landfill ban and a provincial battery-recycling program put in place two years ago.”

The situation in BC with respect to batteries is similar to what’s happening in every other Canadian province. In fact, BC is likely doing better than most. (I shudder to think at what’s happening, or not happening, in the United States.) Note that the concern here is primarily leaking chemicals and heavy metals into leachate and potentially the environment. (Batteries are also something that should be removed from the waste stream before residual waste is sent for disposal in a waste to energy plant.)

I’ve long thought that some kind of deposit should be put on batteries, to give consumers and economic incentive to return the product at end-of-life for recycling, possibly to retail outlets or depots. Deposits could push people to invest more in rechargeable batteries instead of the single-use type. This idea is often dismissed due to the number of single units, but I think the idea could work. Whenever a price is put on a material — especially if the price is large enough — people get motivated to recycle it, more than voluntary programs with no deposit. (Witness the people who comb through my neighborhood’s waste bins in search of beer, wine and liquor bottles to redeem.)

Our magazine’s February/March 2013 edition featured an article by contributing editor Clarissa Morawski (starting on page 26) that you can read online at reviewing some other collection systems that appear to be working fairly well by making set-out convenient for residents.

Whatever system is used, waste batteries being managed in municipal systems and going to landfill strikes me as yet another example of an industry that has saved itself money at the expense of ratepayers and the environment. This “externalization” of costs is something we see all over the place, and most of the leading policy concepts for environmental protection centre around regulatory and non-regulatory instruments for getting industry to re-internalize those costs.

A few decades ago, the examples were more glaring. Chemical companies and other manufacturers simply piped their contaminated wastewater directly into rivers and lakes, or spewed toxins into the air via smokestacks. It’s sort of incredible that this happened right up to the 1980s, when new legislation was promulgated and enforced, if unevenly. Even the most strident supporter of free markets would have to admit that regulation was needed to correct for this “tragedy of the commons” ( the costs of which showed up in environmental pollution and disease and death in humans from cancer and other illnesses.

Today, the low-hanging fruit in that area of concern has been picked. The current cost-internalization exercise is more subtle, though no less important.

Examples include the cleanup of old contaminated industrial sites (sometimes called brownfields) of which there are thousands and thousands waiting for restoration. They tend to sit idle and uncleaned until there’s some kind of real estate transaction to motivate the owner or buyer to fix things. And things get complicated when the site is abandoned or the old corporate owner has gone bankrupt. Those old sites represent a huge externalization of costs from industry onto the public, and from businesses who were solvent at the time onto people in the future.

In the solid waste and recycling realm, as readers by now know, the action largely centers around so-called product stewardship or extended producer responsibility (EPR), programs and policy approaches designed to get producers to re-engineer their products and packaging for recycling, and at a minimum, pay for it. Success has been spotty but the trend now is away from visible eco fees, and toward having companies internalize the end-of-life management costs of their products. (The Ontario government is announcing new policies of this kind, and the June/July edition of our magazine will feature an op-ed piece about this.)

Anyway, here’s the link to the Vancouver Sun article. Enjoy.

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