Converting free riders into product stewards

Call2Recycle has increased recycling throughout North America over 20 years. 

This article was sponsored by Call2Recycle.

During the last 10 years, portable electronic devices powered by batteries have proliferated, changing the way we communicate and work. The explosion of gadgets such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and handheld gaming systems makes product stewardship, or managing the lifecycle of products, even more important.

Historically, Call2Recycle, Inc., North America’s leading battery stewardship organization, has supported voluntary extended producer responsibility for batteries and battery-powered products. These programs are funded by industry stewards, such as battery and battery-powered product manufacturers, to support collecting batteries and gadgets at their end-life and recycling the materials. During more than 20 years of operations, Call2Recycle steadily has increased collections and recycling throughout North America. 

However, the rapid growth of portable electronics and batteries indicates that more must be done to keep up with the amount of products that enter the marketplace. Collections and recycling historically have been supported by voluntary product stewards; however, companies that don’t voluntarily fund recycling programs unfairly benefit from them. These products end up being recycled along with those from manufacturers who voluntarily provide for the management of end-of-life of the products they put into the marketplace. 

Non-participants or "free riders" threaten the financial viability of product stewardship programs by increasing unsupported costs. They also create an unequal playing field whereby responsible businesses bear the burden that should be supported by all businesses in the technology/battery sectors.

Call2Recycle estimates that about 30 percent of the waste batteries collected in their program come from free riders and, as the number of collections increase, the problem grows.

Some jurisdictions have an additional challenge where certain companies gain an exemption for product stewardship despite having products that require batteries. However, this is just shirking the responsibility when their batteries still end up in the collection stream without the companies’ support. 

Call2Recycle regularly reaches out to brands and invite them to participate in product stewardship programs. However, few states require mandatory participation, which can mean a lot of free riders taking advantage of the good practices funded by other companies. 

With these problems in mind, Call2Recycle advocates that the U.S. needs tougher laws to require non-participating companies to join and financially support product stewardship programs or face penalties. The more batteries collected, the more important it is to capture free riders and get them to participate because companies have a duty to be environmentally responsible as a part of doing business.

Enforcement is an important part of mandatory extended producer responsibility requirements and jurisdictions need the tools to pursue compliance. This could include taking legal action or fining non-participating companies to recoup product stewardship costs from collecting and recycling materials

Mandatory product stewardship requirements are the next stage for optimizing collections for the future by ensuring every producer is responsible for the full lifecycle of their products, including recycling and safe disposal at the end of life. As more consumers recycle batteries, to keep them out of landfills and use for the manufacturing of new products, we need to support the growth of these environmentally sustainable habits.

An example of this is in Vermont, where recently the first nationwide single-use battery law was launched, requiring primary (single-use) battery producers must fund and provide a take-back and recycling program for the end-of-life of batteries that enter the marketplace.

Free riders abuse the good business practices of responsible companies and must be held accountable for their actions. It’s no longer sustainable to let the forward-thinking product stewards bear all the cost and commitment to ensure recycling of the nation’s electronics and batteries.