Mandatory Take Back
San Luis Obispo takes aim at fluorescent tubes, household batteries, and sharps.
The San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) is a California regional agency that includes San Luis Obispo County and all seven cities within the county. The IWMA was created to implement the mandates of California AB 939, the Solid Waste Management Act of 1989. AB 939 is best known for its mandate of 50% diversion by 2000. However, AB 939 also requires local communities to adopt and implement household hazardous waste management plans.
The IWMA has implemented a comprehensive Household Hazardous Waste Program. The foundation of the program is a network of six Household Hazardous Waste (HEW) facilities located throughout the County. These facilities are open to County residents and conditionally exempt small quantity generators. When these facilities were designed in the 1990s, the goal was to accept household hazardous waste (HHW) from the public. In the ensuing years, ever tightening regulations created a new class of waste (Universal Waste), which has been subsequently banned from California landfills.
Prior to February 8, 2006, California residents could legally throw spent batteries and fluorescent lighting into the trash. On February 8, 2006, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control allowed the Universal Waste Rule Exemption to expire. This exemption had allowed households and some small businesses to dispose of batteries, electronic devices, and fluorescent tubes/lamps in the landfill.
In addition, on July 12, 2006, California Senate Bill 1305 became law and prohibited, as of September 1, 2008, the disposal of home-generated sharps (needles) in the trash. Section 118286, of the California Health and Safety Code made it illegal to dispose of home-generated-sharps waste in the trash or recycling containers, and requires that all sharps waste be transported to a collection center in an approved sharps container.
As noted above, the burden rested on local government to design, implement, and absorb any additional costs necessary to meet state-mandated bans. Unfortunately, early estimates showed that another $800,000 in universal-waste-handling costs would be necessary to adequately collect batteries, fluorescents, and sharps through our current HHW facilities. In addition, the extra traffic and congestion at the sites would significantly lengthen waiting lines. Without supplementary funding and increased public receiving capacity, the current program designed to manage pesticides, corrosives, flammables, and other HHW would be severely eroded.
Statewide Program Attempt
Initially, local government looked toward the state for help dealing with the universal waste bans. The following outlines the state’s attempt to lessen the burden on local jurisdictions.
AB 1125, the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Act was passed and went into effect July 1, 2006. This law requires all retailers that sell or have sold rechargeable batteries to take back spent batteries for recycling at no charge to the consumer.
This provided little relief, as rechargeable batteries only constitute about 5% of all batteries sold.
In 2006, AB 2271 was introduced and would have established a 10-cent consumer refund value (CRV) on all household batteries. This measure was modeled after the bottle and can recycling law in California (which allows one to redeem bottles and cans for cash). AB 2271, would have generated considerable revenue for the state, and created free and convenient recycling locations for all California residents to utilize. Unfortunately, it was stalled in the Assembly Committee on Appropriations and did not pass.
In the subsequent years, it became clear that the state was unable to provide any real relief for local government on the universal waste issue. Thus, new methods and solutions were needed.
The IWMA Board of Directors acknowledged and recognized that it was not the role of local government to subsidize the disposal of the universal waste that retailers sold to the community. With this thought in mind, IWMA staff developed the first of several point-of-purchase retail take-back models. The following outlines the specific goals of these models:
- To shift the financial burden from local government to those who sell the Universal waste.
- To provide multiple/convenient universal waste drop-off locations for the public.
- To reserve existing HHW facilities for management of toxic household hazardous waste instead of universal waste.
With the Universal Waste Rule Exemption expiration in 2006, IWMA board and staff decided to develop a take-back program for household batteries and fluorescent lighting. The staff submitted a grant application to the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) and was subsequently awarded a $299,977 grant to implement a battery and fluorescent take-back program.
In December 2006, the IWMA researched and purchased several different types of collection containers for batteries and fluorescent lighting.
Containers were evaluated for durability, versatility, cost, and function. The IWMA chose 2- and 4-gallon square plastic buckets for battery recovery, and fiberboard containers for fluorescent tube and bulb collection.
In December of 2006, IWMA staff approached retailers, asking for program participants on a voluntary bases. A modest initial list of volunteer take-back retailers was generated, and, shortly thereafter (with the financial support of grant funding), each retail participant was given battery and/or fluorescent collection containers, window stickers announcing program participation, and staff education on the take-back program.
When collection containers were full (once again with the financial help of grant funding), the IWMA collected the bucket and fiberboard contents utilizing the services of its hazardous-waste contractor, Eco Solutions. This service not only collects full containers but also provides each location with replacement containers and a receipt documenting amounts collected.
Jointly, the IWMA and Eco Solutions created a database used to track and evaluate retail universal waste collection types and quantities. This database has become an invaluable source of information and has helped refine collection methods and frequencies.
Voluntary Versus Mandatory
While some retailers voluntarily participated in the free program, most of the larger retailers refused to participate, even though they were selling the majority of universal waste in the community.
This discrepancy was cause for concern. When the grant funding eventually ended, those retailers who volunteered to participate in the program would unfairly shoulder the program disposal costs. The inequitability of this would force the majority, if not all, of the retail volunteers out of the program, especially given the current economic climate. To complicate matters further, “retraining the public” to change deeply ingrained behaviors (the automatic and highly convenient throwing of spent batteries and fluorescent lighting into the garbage) to taking the universal waste back to a few participating retailers would have resulted in a public-outreach educational nightmare.
To overcome the public education and inequity challenges, the IWMA implemented a mandatory retailer take-back program. The mandatory ordinance was adopted in March 2008, and requires retailers to take back batteries and fluorescent lighting for free under three scenarios:
- From a consumer that buys batteries and/or fluorescent lighting (maximum amount equal to number of batteries and fluorescent lighting being purchased).
- From a consumer who documents a previous purchase of batteries and/or fluorescent lighting (maximum amount limited to the number of batteries and fluorescent lighting previously purchased).
- From a consumer who lives in the jurisdiction (maximum amount limited to 15 batteries and eight fluorescent tubes and lamps per week).
Failure to participate in the program could result in a fine of $1,000 to the retailer. Within a month of adopting the mandatory ordinance, all the retailers who had previously refused to participate in the program were actively participating.
Sharps Take-Back Program
After successfully implementing the battery and fluorescent lighting program, the IWMA needed to address the disposal of sharps. Effective September 1, 2008, it became illegal for residents to dispose of sharps in their garbage. The IWMA submitted a second grant application to the CIWMB and was subsequently awarded a $296,300 grant to set up a sharps take-back program.
The IWMA staff again researched and purchased two container types, one for in-home collection and the other for in-pharmacy consolidation. The staff chose a 1-quart sharps container from Bemis.
The label was customized to provide disposal instructions both in English and in Spanish. The IWMA purchased 40,000 new 1-quart sharps containers for the pharmacies to hand out to the public for free.
In addition, the IWMA purchased 110 red, 38-gallon sharps consolidation containers for the pharmacies and instructional labeling to go on top of the containers. And, finally, the IWMA designed and delivered the program window sticker to notify the public that the pharmacy is a drop-off location for home-generated sharps.
The IWMA staff began setting up the sharps take-back retailers in August 2008. Each retailer was given 100 of the 1-quart sharps containers to hand out to the public and a 38-gallon sharps consolidation container. To date, 43 sharps take-back locations have been established and are being used by the public.
The IWMA collects sharps from take-back pharmacies as the 38-gallon collection containers become full, once again utilizing its hazardous waste contractor, Eco Solutions. Eco Solutions provides a 38-gallon replacement collection container and a receipt at the time of collection.
In addition, if needed, Eco Solutions can also provide more 1-quart sharps containers. The full 38-gallon sharps consolidation containers are stored inside a storage unit at our HHW facility.
Approximately once a month, Stericycle has been contracted to collect the sharps for final disposal.
As with the battery and fluorescent program, the IWMA and Eco Solutions use the same database to track and monitor the program. Since inception of this project, over 90,000 sharps have been collected from our 43 take-back locations.
Because of the inherent fear surrounding needles and the challenges that arose from the voluntary battery and fluorescent lighting take-back program, the IWMA decided to forgo any attempts for a voluntary program and adopted a mandatory sharps take-back ordinance prior to implementing the sharps collection program.
In May 2008, a mandatory sharps ordinance was adopted. It was closely modeled off of the battery and fluorescent lighting ordinance. Pharmacies must take back home-generated sharps from the public under the following three scenarios:
- From a person that buys sharps (maximum amount equal to number of sharps being purchased).
- From a person who documents a previous purchase of sharps (maximum amount limited to the number of sharps previously purchased).
- From a person who lives in the jurisdiction (maximum amount limited to one 2-quart sharps container per week).
As with the battery and fluorescent retailers, all pharmacies in the county are currently in compliance with the ordinance as failure to comply could result in a $1,000-per-day fine.
Implementation and Operation
The success of any take-back program is based on its initial implementation and ongoing operation. As you can well imagine, any take-back program at the retail level is viewed by retailers as more government regulation that hinders their ability to be a merchant.
This mindset, while not easy to overcome, can be kept to a minimum by providing assistance.
Step One, Set Up—Initial identification and setup of retail locations. Tasks include:
- Compile a list of drop-off locations using the local chamber of commerce, the Yellow Pages, and even the Internet.
- Visit each location to verify that they sell the item in question, and introduce the take-back concept to store managers.
- Determine appropriate size and type of collection containers with the help of onsite managers and employees. In addition, discussions should include in-store container placement and signage to instruct the public. Keep in mind that each drop-off location has challenges that are unique and need to be addressed.
- Deliver collection containers and educate onsite staff. Because of the constant turnover of retail staff, it is important note that the education process is never complete. We suggest that program information be added to new employee handbooks.
Step Two, Operations—Collection of take-back waste. The tasks include the following:
- Develop a database—This is a critical component to a successful program. Items in the database should include retailer name, address, phone number, contact person, program setup date, material to be collected, and frequency of collection. In addition, space to document each collection event and the amount of material collected must be allotted for.
- Service drop-off locations—Servicing of a location can be on an established frequency (e.g., weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly) or on-call. Once waste has been collected, the driver hands each retailer a receipt documenting the date, items collected, and amounts collected. This receipt is evidence to any regulatory agency that the waste at that retail location has been properly managed.
- Manage collected waste—Once the waste has been collected, it must be properly managed by taking the waste back to the household hazardous waste facility, where it is sorted and packaged for final recycling or disposal.
Step Three, Public Outreach and Education—The final step is to promote the program. If the public is unaware of the programs, they will fail. In addition, if it is complicated or not convenient, behaviors will not change. That being said, and thanks to our mandatory ordinances, public education and confusion are kept to a minimum. “If you sell it, you must take it back!”
Window stickers—The mandatory ordinances require every retailer to have a sticker in the front window or within 5 feet of the front door indicating that this is a take-back location and what items it collects. The sticker serves as public reminder and guarantee that the retailer participates.
As of June 30, 2009, the programs have collected:
- Batteries—1,222,000 pounds have been collected.
- Fluorescent lighting—82,000 lights have been collected.
- Sharps—90,000 needles have been collected.
In the county, the number of drop-off locations has increased from the six HHW facilities to 348 locations for batteries, 127 locations for fluorescents, and 43 locations for sharps.
Hours of operation have increased from four hours per week per location at our HHW facilities to a minimum of 40 hours, and, in some cases, 84 hours per week per location at area retailers.
Because the IWMA was the first local government to implement mandatory battery, fluorescent lighting, and sharps collection, we designed the programs knowing that they would be revised and refined over time.
The following list describes what has worked well:
- Instituting the mandatory ordinance. This guaranteed that the burden is equally shared among retailers.
- One marketing message: “If you sell it, you take it back.”
- Window stickers at each retail location. This serves as a public reminder and guarantees retailer participation.
- Supplying uniform collection containers
- Supplying program education to retail staff
- Supplying contractor to pick up collected waste
And finally, as noted, voluntary programs do notwork. The resulting unlevel playing field, haphazard participation, and dramatically increased public education difficulties provide adequate proof.
Both the battery/fluorescent and sharps take-back programs are successful and will continue to be sustainable indefinitely as they are funded by those who sell the product to the community.
Author's Bio: SWANA member, Patti L. Toews, is with the San Louis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management
Author's Bio: SWANA member, William A. Worrell is with the San Louis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management
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