Legislative Report 2/12/2014 - Recycling Batteries

When the Moretown landfill was closed by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources last year because of contamination and odor problems, Vermont was left with only one active landfill for the entire state.  While some southern Vermont towns and solid waste districts ship their garbage across the borders to New York and New Hampshire, the rest of Vermont must rely on the Coventry landfill to meet its needs.  This location is also finite and will someday have to close as well.  To extend that day as far into the future as possible, we must learn to reduce the amount of waste we generate or else repurpose it and divert it from our remaining landfill.

The Vermont legislature has been addressing the problem of solid waste since 1987 when it passed Act 78 creating the first solid waste districts.  More recently, Act 148 addressing the diversion of yard waste and organic waste from landfills was passed in 2012.  And last year Vermont partnered with paint manufacturers to establish a paint stewardship program which will allow unused paint to be returned for recycling at participating paint retailers.  Other stewardship programs, in which manufacturers assume the cost of recycling, include electronic waste, mercury light bulbs, and mercury thermostats, which have all been banned from Vermont landfills.

There are other materials that we continue to dispose of in the trash because they are not currently recyclable by the methods available at Vermont recycling facilities.  One of these materials is single-use batteries, also known as primary batteries.  There are more than 190 manufacturers of primary batteries sold in the U.S.  According to an industry report, approximately 5.4 billion units of single-use batteries were shipped in the U.S. in 2010, including about 10 million in Vermont.  Recoverable materials from primary batteries include zinc, manganese and steel.  Offsetting the need for virgin materials is typically the best way to reduce a product’s overall lifecycle impact.  Material recovery reduces the energy consumption needed to acquire virgin materials as well as other environmental impacts from mining.  However, it is not economically feasible for our solid waste districts to pay for a primary battery recycling program.  While there is an active rechargeable battery recycling program run by the industry, single-use batteries have not been included.  This is now about to change.

Like the paint manufacturers, the primary battery industry has become proactive in supporting a battery stewardship program. Energizer, Panasonic and Duracell, which account for more than half of the batteries sold in the U.S., are ready to partner with Vermont and other states to collect, ship and recycle primary batteries.  House bill H.695, currently being developed by the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, will update Vermont’s solid waste laws to require all solid waste districts and municipalities, as well as retailers on a voluntary basis, to act as collection points.  It will also encourage other primary battery manufacturers to join an existing stewardship program or form one of their own.  Only primary batteries made by participating manufacturers will be allowed to be sold in Vermont beginning in 2016.  Finally, the bill will set up a process that will allow the industry-sponsored stewardship programs to recover recycling costs from each other and from non-participating manufacturers. 

While recycling and material diversion has come a long way in Vermont, we still have a long way to go.  Only 35% of the waste stream in Vermont is recycled.  In Chittenden County, it’s a little better at about 60%.  But I have seen too many recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic that is routinely thrown into trash cans and barrels.  It is incumbent on all of us to take personal responsibility for recycling our own waste and to remind others to do the same.