Oregon’s electronics recycling too successful for some manufacturers

By Scott Learn The Oregonian

Media Center – Press Coverage

Oregon’s electronics recycling too successful for some manufacturers

by Scott Learn, The Oregonian, May 12, 2009

Less than five months in, Oregon’s free electronics recycling program is collecting too much too fast for the largest manufacturer group involved, prompting it to ask the Oregon recyclers it works with to dial back their efforts.

The group, the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, or MRM, recently warned Goodwill and its other collectors that it won’t pay if they participate in off-site recycling events put on by groups such as churches or neighborhood associations.

Facing high returns and a bum economy, MRM told the collectors to limit themselves to state-provided signs for advertising and not to use freelance fliers when it comes to state-mandated free recycling of televisions, computers, laptops and monitors that began Jan. 1.

And it dropped two recycling companies from its collector mix, Garten Services of Salem and Columbia Recycling of Portland, to cut down recycling volume.

Columbia Recycling held an electronics recycling event in late March for the Vietnamese community, designed to raise money for a Rose Festival float. Now owner Bang Tran says he’s sitting on at least 60,000 pounds of recycled electronics, much of it from that event, that MRM won’t accept.

Tran said he advertised in Vietnamese publications for the fundraiser and put out fliers.

“In the contract, it never said you can’t do that,” he said. “We thought if the government has a program to clean up the electronics, then the recycle people should help the community clean up.”

MRM, backed by Panasonic, Toshiba, Sharp and, in Oregon, 18 other television manufacturers, is one of four programs that began collecting electronics Jan. 1. That was the Oregon Legislature’s start date for manufacturer-financed free recycling of TVs, monitors and computers statewide.

Betty Patton, president of the consulting firm Environmental Practices and MRM’s Oregon director, said Columbia’s recycling volume was unusually high.

It wasn’t clear where Columbia’s recyclables were coming from, she said, if they had been collected before Jan. 1, or whether large businesses with high numbers of electronics were involved.

Oregon law requires manufacturers to pay for free recycling only for individuals or small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. The collections that created Columbia Recycling’s current stockpile came after MRM suspended taking collections from the company, Patton said.

“It was a lot more than what we were expecting,” she said. “We asked for documentation of where things were coming from, and they did not provide us with enough information.”

Tran said his company was dropped with little notice, and the high recycling volumes came from his outreach and contacts within the Vietnamese community.

“I didn’t make all the new TVs, so why blame it on me?” he said. “Somebody has to be responsible for this.”

Halfway there
Through the first quarter of the year, MRM collected 2.3 million pounds of electronics for recycling, the highest total of the four recycling groups in Oregon’s E-Cycle program and on pace to exceed MRM’s minimum state requirement of 5.03 million pounds for all of 2009.

The group also contracts with Goodwill, which has an extensive network in Oregon, helping push up its recycling numbers.

Through the first quarter, the four programs combined collected about 5 million pounds. The total minimum required for the year is 12.2 million pounds.

In a letter to its collectors, MRM warned that its member manufacturers “have limited financial resources to continue financing the program once the (state) targets are achieved.”

The manufacturers pay collectors from 4 cents to 7 cents a pound for electronics collected, then pay to have the recyclables processed. The down economy has dampened demand for electronics and driven down the price the manufacturers can get for recyclables, Patton said, even as they pay collectors at a fixed rate.

“What we’re telling collectors is we are ready and able to accept the material that is brought into your facility, but having special, heavily advertised events — give us a break here,” Patton said. She added: “I don’t think we would be having this conversation if it weren’t for the economy.”

Officials with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees the E-Cycle program, said the state does not plan to get involved in the dispute between MRM and Columbia Recycling. Manufacturers do have the right to control events for free electronics recycling, said Loretta Pickerell, manager for solid waste policy at DEQ.

But MRM’s letter told collectors to accept electronics for recycling only if the electronics’ owners bring them in, which is blatantly illegal, Pickerell said.

Negotiated goals
Manufacturers knew that collections were likely to exceed the state minimums, Pickerell said. State officials agreed to set a relatively low minimum required return amount for 2009 because manufacturers were worried about having to pay a state penalty if they fell short.

The state told the manufacturers to prepare for higher returns, Pickerell said.

“All of them heard that and all of them understood it,” Pickerell said. “This is not a surprise.”

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, said Oregon is doing well on collections because its legislation mandates convenience. Among the requirements: Any electronics recycling program must offer services in every county and have sites in all cities with at least 10,000 residents.

But the MRM letter reinforces that the companies, which say they support 100 percent recycling, “don’t want to encourage people to bring their products back,” Kyle said. “They want to do the minimum.”

So far, collections by the three manufacturer-run programs are ahead of their minimum 2009 pace, while the state-run program is falling short. The 2010 minimums, recently set by the state, are nearly double this year’s amounts.

Steven Elmore, business development specialist for Garten Services, one of two companies dropped by MRM, said MRM may be getting more than its share of returns “because they paid (collectors) on time and they were real easy to work with.” Garten contracts with several of the E-Cycle programs.

The early numbers could be misleading. Residents are recycling a lot of televisions and monitors that include heavy cathode ray tubes. And the digital television switchover in June is likely boosting television purchases and recycling volumes.

Bill Goman, who runs recycling programs for Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette, said he understands manufacturers’ cost concerns. But some “may be overreacting,” he said.

“If we had a goal of 5 million pounds and we collected 10 million,” he said, “they should be happy with us.”

Link to story online