Managing Products From Start to Finish

solar panels epr
Solar panels containing the toxic metal cadmium can be recycled at the end of their lifespan under an initiative from First Solar, removing the cadmium for reuse. Credit: Lyndsey Manzo

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

The traditional view of the manufacturer that creates a product and then leaves the rest of its life cycle up to consumers is giving way to a new reality of what’s known as “extended producer responsibility.” A growing number of companies are working toward more recycling and proper disposal of items ranging from light bulbs and computers to cars to keep toxic or precious components out of the landfill.

Thanks in part to new regulations in Canada and the United States, companies are looking at their supply chains and products from the start of manufacturing to their disposal, according to Dr. Greg Keoleian, director of University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems. In Canada, these programs fall under provincial jurisdiction, with the Ontario Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Program covering the Great Lakes. In the United States, these programs are covered by states. In the Great Lakes region, New York and Illinois have a greater number of laws addressing “e-waste” recycling and disposal bans than others like Ohio, which have none. There also are voluntary national programs in the United States, while some items are covered nationally in Canada.

For example, Keoleian said solar panel manufacturer First Solar – which has a manufacturing plant in Perrysburg, Ohio – uses cadmium in the construction of its panels. Cadmium is a toxic metal, so one could argue, he said, that it might not be considered an environmentally responsible source of electricity. First Solar has a commitment to take the panels back at the end of their life cycle and recover the cadmium, Keoleian explained, preventing that toxic substance from getting into the Great Lakes environment. In contrast, he added, a coal-fired power plant produces toxic emissions that are a significant source of contamination of mercury, heavy metals and acid gases in the basin.

“Even though their technology involves a very toxic chemical, they’re actually reducing the emissions of that pollutant by displacing fossil electricity, and they also have a management system to take their product back and do it responsibly,” Keoleian said. Further, he said that material and energy recovery should be emphasized in the product design process. Combining extended producer responsibility measures with sustainable supply chain management strategies would advance the concept of the “circular economy,” which conserves resources and limits waste and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle.

Automobile companies typically recycle vehicles that have reached the end of their life cycle too, using shredders, magnets and other separation processes to pull metals like steel, iron, aluminum, copper and zinc out for recovery. In total, he estimates about 80 percent of a car or truck ends up recycled. The remaining 20 percent is largely made up of plastics and rubber, and the auto industry is researching new ways to efficiently recover those portions for reuse. Home appliance manufacturers of goods like refrigerators and dishwashers also shred worn out units to recover as much as they can, Keoleian said. Fritz Enterprises, Huron Valley Steel and Padnos are examples of key recyclers in Michigan.

In some cases, manufacturers may not be directly involved in recycling used products but other entities are. With incandescent light bulbs being phased out, their replacements have largely come from compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. The CFL bulbs contain some mercury, another toxic metal, which makes them unsuitable for being simply tossed in the trash when they burn out. Storefronts like Lowe’s and Home Depot will take those used bulbs for recycling, so the mercury can be safely removed. In Canada, stores like Lowe’s also take used CFLs under Ontario’s Take Back the Light initiative.

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CFL light bulbs contain mercury, so stores have recycling programs to keep the toxic metal from reaching landfills. Credit: Jose Ibarra

By keeping these materials out of landfills, companies and regulators can reuse them elsewhere and help prevent them from leaking into the environment, causing health risks for people and wildlife. As the governments seek to honor the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, these programs are one way of doing it.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

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