Montgomery’s curbside recycling program is something to be proud of. Sure, they don’t take glass (and the closest place to drop your glass seems to be in Prattville? Anyone got a tip on in-city glass recycling?). But compared to Tuscaloosa, where you had to tote your recycling to the ONE sorting trailer in town that took recycling and was invariably overflowing with phone books, soda bottles, and tattered copies of Sports Illustrated, and still didn’t take glass (for THAT, you had to drive to Birmingham), Montgomery’s program is top-notch.
Basically, you get orange bags tied to your city-issued trash can. These bags can be filled with mixed recycling (steel cans, plastic, paper, cardboard boxes cut to lay flat, etc.), and the city won’t pick up any recycling that is not in one of these orange bags. Which are surprisingly flimsy. Like rip, basically, upon contact with cardboard. Fortunately they can be reinforced with duct tape, if need be. Your trash gets picked up twice a week, and only one of those days is your recycling pick-up day.
So far so good. Except that if you’re like us, you recycle a lot, and some weeks more than others. But it’s surprisingly hard to get more bags from the city. We recently had a major influx of cardboard into the house (the Amazon wedding registry, it turns out, involves a lot of giant boxes containing other boxes containing single items packed with unnecessary air bags), and needed to get rid of it. So I called the city sanitation department to see if I could swing by there for more orange bags. No such luck. They do not allow you to come by the office to get more bags, despite obviously having bags in the office. They said they would mail them to me. This was a week ago. Today I logged on to their website to try again, and was surprised to find a technological upgrade! You can now click on a button to order more bags! This button generates an email you can fill out and send including your address and preferred number of extra bags. Great. Except that the email gets promptly bounced back as undeliverable. Ah, Montgomery.
One thing coming up in the city is the annual Electronics Recycling Event, where folks can bring in all their old keyboards, copy machines, etc. (and TVs, for an extra $10 per television) to be recycled. I was happy, because I have a few non-functional electronic items here in the office to get rid of, but suspicious, because like many people I saw this horrifying 60 Minutes episode about the secret, evil work of many electronics recycling companies.
The company Montgomery is contracting with to haul the waste away is Ecovery LLC. They have a nice website, but I was concerned because they do not appear on the list of electronics recycling companies that have taken the Basel Action Network pledge. BAN’s E-Stewards Initiative is an attempt to get electronics recyclers to adhere to tough standards regarding the treatment and disposal of toxic waste. It doesn’t have any teeth, though – so far all you have to do to get on BAN’s E-Steward list is to take the pledge. There’s no certification program or auditing associated with the program, although BAN says that by 2010 all of that will be put into place.
There is only one E-Steward company in Alabama, and it isn’t Ecovery LLC. It’s Huntsville-based MARS LLC. I called over to Ecovery to find out why weren’t on the E-Steward list, and had a nice conversation with their CEO, Brock Norris. Brock was somewhat critical of the BAN program because of its lack of teeth. He was proud to say that Ecovery is certified through the RIOS program (Recycling Industry Operating Standard – a certification program of the industry association, ISRI), which he described as a comprehensive and auditable program, unlike the E-Steward initiative. He did say that once BAN’s program evolved into an audited certification program, Ecovery would try to get that certification as well.
On the one hand, I was impressed by talking to Brock about his company. Only a year old, Ecovery does all of its processing in Loxley, AL. Even the cathode ray tubes are processed there, and only the glass is sent out for cleaning at a separate facility. This seems promising. I like the idea of electronics recycling being done locally rather than shipped off to some poor country so child and imprisoned workers can die of cancers after stripping down our electronics so we can feel marginally better about the new computer we just HAD to have.
But I’m still a little wary of Brock’s argument, for two reasons. First, it turns out that the RIOS standards are MUCH lower and less stringent than the E-Steward standards. It’s also lower than the EPA’s R2 standards (which seem to be basically the same as RIOS). Check out this BAN brochure (it’s a PDF) for a side-by-side comparison. So compliance with RIOS is a far cry from complicance with what BAN is suggesting.This strikes me as pretty par for the course for industry “self-regulation.” There are a million examples of industries that take pre-emptive action to stall momentum for strict regulation, and their regulations are always weaker than what is being suggested by outside parties. I looked on the ISRI site for reactions to the BAN standards and found this letter (PDF) from former ISRI President Robin Weiner sent to 60 Minutes after the recycling story aired. It criticizes the segment for, basically, spotlighting the work of a few bad apples. Other than that there don’t seem to be any official ISRI documents (on the site at least) responding to the BAN standards.
The second problem I had with Brock’s argument was that it seemed a bit hollow. Recall that he said the problem with the BAN pledge is that it lacks enforcement. But if you agree that these standards are good, what would you have to lose by taking the pledge? Seems like getting on the E-Steward list couldn’t be anything but good for business. Especially when nosy hippies like me call you up to demand information about your Basel Convention compliance before they will give you an old crappy photocopier.