First in a two-part series
These are tumultuous times for the Environmental Products Recycling Association (EPRA) and its Environmental Handling Fee (EHF), which is levied on the purchase of all new electronics (from $2.50 for portable computers to $42.50 for big-screen TVs, plus HST).
— Imge by Thinkstock.com
The EHF has come under fire over the last two weeks, first on talk radio, then from politicians — NDP MHA George Murphy, in particular — and then in the news media.
There have been a number of complaints and questions about the EPRA and its EHF, so this week I spoke with EPRA program director Terry Greene, who I first interviewed in early September. We covered a lot of ground and dealt with a number of accusations. The result was a lot of material, even after editing for length, so I will present this column in two parts.
GM: You must feel some frustration with how things have unfolded in recent days.
TG: Well, it comes with the business. When we launched this program, we knew there would be some consumer concern about fees being charged on new purchases. We also hoped that we’d be able to explain ourselves to people in terms of what the fees are being used for and how we are administering the program. I did (participate in several media interviews) and have been trying to respond to issues, while responding to questions that government may have in response to questions raised in the house.
GM: According to George Murphy, a local business that had been recycling electronics all along for free is out of business and now, here we are paying for the service. Is that correct?
TG: There is at least one small local company in the business of taking computers, or CPUs, from businesses around town. They were charging a fee for that service and doing some manual dismantling at a shop here in St. John’s, to retrieve materials that they then sold to a processor in Quebec. I think that company still exists and is taking materials, but we are still taking end-of-life materials off their hands as well, so they are really part of the cycle that we are involved in right now. So, the idea that we’re charging a fee while they weren’t (is wrong) — businesses were paying for them to take the material prior to us starting the program.
GM: George Murphy says we should recycle the materials here, rather than in Quebec, to maximize local benefits.
TG: The program that we administer is a highly audited process to ensure that the products that we send to a recycling facility are managed to some very tight standards — first of all in terms of the contaminants that are in the products, like mercury and lead. Secondly, we ensure that it isn’t going downstream to a developing nation. Thirdly, the companies we use have a highly automated process that makes it more cost effective for them to take our material. And the business model that is used in these large recycling facilities, with the amount of end-of-life products that are present in this province, just wouldn’t justify the variety of materials that need to be recycled.
We have 100-plus products that will be coming to our collection facilities, which is a very different model than what might be used in collecting some reusable components from computers. Ours is a much more sophisticated model. There are businesses that pay to have their paper and cardboard recycled but it isn’t a business-driven model — it ends up being subsidized, basically. Same thing with tires — there is a levy on all tires that are collected but we don’t have a solution for that within this province, either.
It’s not that there isn’t a desire to find a solution on the government’s behalf, it’s that the business model isn’t there. Even the companies that we deal with nationally — they were asked whether they would look at a facility in Newfoundland or Atlantic Canada, but the business case just wasn’t there — as much as I would like to see that. But if the business case is not there, we’re not going to invent something or create something that is subsidized by taxpayers.
GM: In his Dec. 3 media release, George Murphy said that electronics were “ostensibly” being recycled, which casts doubt on the validity of your process and even suggests that items aren’t being recycled at all. Where does the recycling take place?
TG: It’s in Valleyfield, Que.
GM: Have you considered shooting a video at this facility, showing the various steps of the electronics recycling process, to demonstrate that there is nothing “ostensible” about it?
TG: Coincidentally, most of these electronics recycling companies do have videos already. (Go to YouTube and search for “eCycle electronics recycling.”) This stuff is pretty transparent, in that the videos do show what the recycling process is at these facilities. And we are in the process of developing a video now, for the express reason that you just described. We want to make this as transparent as possible.
But to respond to the “ostensible” comment that you attributed to Mr. Murphy and possibly others, we have a recycler qualification office whose only job is to audit processing facilities that are used by EPRA, to ensure that they comply with various worker safety codes and manage downstream processes to ensure that materials aren’t diverted to Third World countries. There is a highly competent team who constantly monitor this process and our audit materials would probably be made available if somebody made an inquiry about it.
GM: Tell me more about the legislation that is driving these changes.
TG: Each province over the years has been looking at ensuring that as many products as possible can be diverted from the landfill and in the past year, the provincial Department of Environment and the Multi Materials Stewardship Board (MMSB) looked at establishing an extended producer responsibility model within the province, similar to that in other provinces, where retailers and manufacturers of electronic products are required to submit a stewardship plan to government that will demonstrate that they have the capacity to take back end-of-life electronics and ensure that it is responsibly recycled.
The legislation was passed in November of 2012, the program was approved in April of 2013 and launched Aug. 1. EPRA — as an umbrella organization — submits a single stewardship plan on behalf of all manufacturers and retailers. Otherwise, every single manufacturer — such as Dell or Toshiba — and every retailer would have to submit an individual stewardship plan.
GM: Why should people care about this? Why should they willingly pay $7.50 extra on a printer or 42.50 on a TV to have it recycled, when they could dispose of it in a landfill for free?
TG: We are talking now about environmental stewardship and awareness on behalf of the general public. In these cases, I invite people to imagine 2,500 metric tonnes of electronic products going into the landfill every year in this province. We have the opportunity to divert those 2,500 tonnes of materials away from the landfill, retrieve any products that are of value, and remove lead, mercury and other contamination at the same time. Prior to setting up this program we did some research and found that in excess of 80 per cent of people said they understood what the benefits would be of recycling electronics, and more than 85 per cent said they would be prepared to pay a fee for that. Now, the fee wasn’t quoted when they answered that, but there is a recognition on behalf of the public that something has to be done on as many levels as possible to put that puzzle together, to protect the environment and be active recyclers.
In part 2: Greene deals with suggestions that the EPRA is a mysterious, unaccountable group that could be paying exorbitant salaries to staff and even skimming profits back to manufacturers.