Life after death

New laws to require toxic-product manufacturers to steward ‘afterlife’ recycling

Photo By Mazi Noble

California’s $21-billion budget deficit makes undertaking costly and contentious environmental reform a thorny matter for lawmakers. But eco-reform that comes with the potential of new state jobs—not to mention smaller government and costs absorbed by the private sector—equals change that not only politicians on both sides of the aisle can believe in, but also one that major corporations and voters potentially won’t snub.

And so this year, a handful of toxic-product bills, including Northern California Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro’s watershed Product Stewardship Act, promise to do exactly this: create new jobs, save money and the environment, and shrink government.

The proposal from Chesbro, a Democrat from Humboldt County who founded a recycling center straight out of college, is the session’s marquee green bill. Called the California Product Stewardship Act, or Assembly Bill 2139, it would require manufacturers of hazardous consumer products to make them less toxic and easier to recycle.

Specifically, the bill would establish a framework—Chesbro calls this “extended producer responsibility”—according to which manufacturers of toxic consumer products, like hypodermic needles, household pesticides and small propane tanks, would establish recycling and disposal programs, in addition to making their products less toxic in the first place.

And there’s a trade-off: Companies are one by one agreeing to absorb stewardship costs because of the creation of new private-sector jobs.

The issue is that toxics like mercury end up in California landfills and are difficult to clean up and cost taxpayers millions. “Toxic products are ubiquitous in the waste stream,” said Bob Fredenburg, Chesbro’s legislative aide, who assisted in crafting AB 2139. He says this legislation will hold manufacturers and companies accountable not only to inform consumers about the toxicity of their products, but also how to properly dispose of said waste.

Unlike previous attempts at government regulation, Chesbro’s Product Stewardship Act won’t make government bigger. Instead, businesses will customize plans for how to deal with products after their so-called “deaths,” encouraging more eco-friendly design to grapple with, as Fredenburg said, “uniquely problematic end-of-life issues” with items like sharps, for example.

In 1990, the Legislature directed counties to reduce landfill waste by 50 percent, which, according to CalRecycle, created 80,000 state jobs. Similarly, the Product Stewardship Act framework would significantly stimulate what many politicians refer to as the “green economy,” potentially creating more permanent state jobs.

This has been done before, as with air conditioning. In 2008, the Legislature passed the Mercury Thermostat Collection Act, in partnership with Honeywell, the California Product Stewardship Council and the Sierra Club.

This had to happen, experts say, because mercury is abundant in landfills. “And as far as what the public has access to, [thermostats are] the largest source of mercury,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the CPSC.

Chesbro’s bill will help more manufacturers step up. “We don’t necessarily need the Legislature to deal with every single product in the waste stream separately,” Sanborn explained, noting that the Product Stewardship Act will function as an umbrella law.

“We’re trying to harmonize and also make sure it’s not a government-heavy program. We have to focus on government-lite, private-sector programs,” Sanborn said.

This bill isn’t the only game changer in the pipe for 2010; it’s in a sense a landmark year for eco-friendly end-of-life bills at the Capitol. Another bill would require mercury-containing light-bulb manufacturers to steward recycling programs. Others would establish programs for carpet, household batteries, architectural paint and even brake pads.

Whether all these bills make it past the governor’s desk come November, one thing’s for certain: More and more people now believe in the afterlife.