This concept, known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), creates financial incentives for manufacturers to design products that are less toxic, more durable, and more easily recycled. Rhode Island already has three EPR laws on the books. The collection of electronic waste, mercury auto switches, and mercury thermostats are managed through programs that are created and funded by manufacturers.
House Bill 7443 takes the next step in keeping mercury out of our waste stream, requiring manufacturers of florescent light bulbs either to develop a voluntary program to address the disposal of their bulbs or allow the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to convene a stakeholder group charged with the creation of a mandatory program.
Sponsor of this bill and Committee Vice Chairperson, Rep. Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown) opened the hearing to a packed room by stating, “Producer responsibility is here to stay.” She also emphasized the flexibility of the bill. “There is a voluntary program in this. There are options.”
“I am excited about the NEMA’s (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) new position on producer responsibility,” said Jamie Rhodes, Rhode Island Director for Clean Water Action. “There was near universal agreement on the need for further action to prevent any additional mercury from being disposed of inappropriately. It is always a positive experience when we can work with manufacturers to develop a plan that works just as well for them as it does for all Rhode Islanders.”
Janet Coit, Director of Rhode Island DEM stated, “It looks like we’re moving towards the same thing.” The driving force behind DEM’s support for fluorescent lamp product stewardship is the hazard of improper disposal of mercury. Coit continued, “Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin and we do want to deal with that.” Liz Stone, spokeswoman for DEM, added, “What it comes down to, is that there are very few places in the state to take your bulbs. So many people throw them in the trash because they don’t know what to do with them.”
In recognizing the positive steps that industry has taken voluntarily, staff attorney Jerry Elmer of the Conservation Law Foundations added, “Despite the fact that 90% of the mercury in light bulbs has been removed and that we’ve moving away from CFLs, there’s still a lot of mercury in the waste stream that needs to be addressed.” Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation estimated that they spend around $6,000 to dispose of the 8,000 – 12,000 fluorescent bulbs which they collect.
While House Bill 7443 gives DEM the ability to promulgate rules to address fluorescent lamps, it contains a specific provision to allow a voluntary program to be created by the industry and submitted to the DEM for approval. In support of a potential NEMA voluntary program, Stone added, “This law allows for a voluntary program and we at DEM prefer that. Laws have generally been passed because the industry needs that nudging.”
Matt Prindiville, Associate Director of the Product Policy Institute, described the success of similar programs in other states. “We have over 200 collection locations in Maine, many of them at retail locations. It’s easy for consumers to find these sites.”
RI municipalities have also supported the concept of EPR. “Fourteen of Rhode Island’s cities and towns, representing 56% of the state’s population, have already passed resolutions in support of producer responsibility,” affirmed Amy Vitale of Clean Water Action during the hearing. “This is an extension of existing Rhode Island laws aimed at reducing human exposure to mercury. Though the industry assures us that fluorescent lamps containing mercury are being phased out, their long lifespan ensures that they will be part of our waste stream for at least the next decade.”
Clean Water Action (CWA) is a national organization with over 40,000 members in Rhode Island, working to protect our environment, health, economic well-being and community quality of life. CWA organizes strong grassroots groups and coalitions, and campaigns to elect environmental candidates and solve environmental and community problems.
Many organizations were on hand to support this proposal, including RI Resource Recovery Corporation, Conservation Law Foundation, Clean Water Action, the RI Product Stewardship Council, Sierra Club, the RI DEM, Environment RI, and the Environment Council of RI.