David Weinberg, general counsel of PRBA–The Rechargeable Battery Association, discusses the unexpected downside to recycling, e-waste and sustainability initiatives. You can view the video or read the transcript below:
Chuck Conconi: My guest today is David Weinberg, who is the general counsel of PRBA-The Rechargeable Battery Association. He’s been here before and it’s great to see you again, David. Thanks for coming.
David Weinberg: My pleasure, Chuck.
Chuck Conconi: This is a complicated issue on batteries and you’ve been working on recycling issues for more than 20 years. Explain a little bit what’s going on.
David Weinberg: Sure. I have been working with all segments of the battery industry for 25 years or so. Both the automotive battery people, who have a very successful recycling program based on state legislation that we’ve taken the lead in getting adopted around the country, and the rechargeable batteries for things like consumer products, which the rechargeable battery association represents. It put together a free-for- the-public, free-for-retailers recycling program 15 years ago. And to do that, had to get regulations and legislation changed to make it possible, but it has been very successful with that program for the last 15 years.
Chuck Conconi: We all have more batteries for products, phones, and what have you. But there is a growing list of proposed recycling, e-waste, and product stewardship regulations. It involves several Canadian provinces and the United States. What’s going on?
David Weinberg: What’s going is an expansion of a concept that began 15 years ago and is now expanding into many other products. It began 15 years ago and rechargeable batteries were the poster child, seeking to have the manufacturers and suppliers of those batteries responsible for them at their end of life. That led the rechargeable battery industry, through what is called PRBA-The Rechargeable Battery Association, to develop a national program to recycle those batteries. It set up not a not-for-profit company called RBRC, that runs something called Call to Recycle, and it has collected 50 million batteries in the years since.
More recently, there has been attention to things like waste TVs, waste computers and various other waste products and efforts to impose legislative obligations on the suppliers of those products both here in the United States and in Canada and to have them do something similar to what the rechargeable battery industry did voluntarily 15 years ago.
And the challenge to the rechargeable battery industry, frankly, is to not be collateral damage as people try to implement those other programs and to have people recognize we’ve got a successful program. Keep it in place. Do what you decide needs to be done as to these other products, but don’t disrupt the successful rechargeable battery program.
Chuck Conconi: But what’s the problem for the rechargeable battery industry?
David Weinberg: The big problem is that most of the activity that is going on now is on a state-by-state basis, or province by province in Canada. And even the most well meaning people, if they develop 50 different state programs and a dozen different Canadian programs, are going to make it impossible to lead a national program like RBRC operates. They will have different reporting periods. They will have different obligations to file updates. They will have different approval requirements.
Let me give you an example. When we first started the rechargeable battery recycling program, the concern was with nickel cadmium batteries. Those were being used in cell phones and computers and so forth. Now a different kind of battery is reused with those products, something called lithium ion. The RBRC program adjusted itself and expanded to include these other kinds of batteries. The RBRC had to adjust its fee-setting program that assessed the fees against the manufacturers from. Those things happened, and happened quite efficiently and effectively.
If we had had to go to 50 different states to get approval of a change in schedule or an approval of a change in a program, it would have been an administrative nightmare. Those states wouldn’t have intended that—they would have been acting in good faith—but they just inadvertently . . .
Chuck Conconi: So what is going to happen?
David Weinberg: That’s what we are concerned about and we are finding ourselves after 15 years—having fought this battle 15 years ago and shifted to dealing with other issues – dealing with safety issues, dealing with electric vehicle issues, and so forth, we are finding ourselves back dealing with recycling issues. It’s kind of the price of our good intentions…
Chuck Conconi: The unintended consequences of good intentions.
David Weinberg: Exactly. We have to go back now and protect ourselves.
Chuck Conconi: The rechargeable battery industry has intervened successfully in several states in devising sustainability, which means – you said – recycling plans?
David Weinberg: What we have done, what we have found in most places, where we have explained the situation to the legislators, they get it very quickly. They realize they did not mean to disrupt this program.
But it’s an effort to do that. It takes time and it takes resources, and that means money. And for trade associations that means they have to make sure their members understand the nature of the challenge they are facing. And this is a very important challenge.
Chuck Conconi: One quick question before we close. Where do you think it is going for the industry?
David Weinberg: I think we will be able to continue to operate the RBRC program. I think it’s going to be successful, but I think it will be a continuing challenge to address at both the state and, ultimately, the federal level, making sure that the good intentions of the policy people don’t disrupt a very fine program and a very successful program.
Chuck Conconi: David Weinberg, thank you so much for being here. I’m Chuck Conconi, and this has been Focus Washington.