Recycling hereafter

California recycles better than anyone. But the wave of the future is manufacturer responsibility.

CalRecycle head Mark Leary talks responsible recycling.

CalRecycle head Mark Leary talks responsible recycling.

Photo By SHOKA

CalRecycle is the state’s go-to organization for all aspects of waste and recycling, an estimated $10 billion industry—as big as Hollywood’s motion-picture machine—that includes reprocessing bottles and cans, old tires, used oil and defunct electronic items. Mark Leary, CalRecycle’s acting director for nearly two months, recently sat down with SN&R to explain what the state is doing to make recycling safer, easier and as convenient as possible—and that it’s time to increase manufacturer responsibility when it comes to the life and afterlife of their products.

I read a January 2008 report that seemed, frankly, very radical and very progressive, a sea change from how things are currently done when it comes to manufacturer responsibility for the afterlife of products. Can you comment on that?

It is a sea change, and we think that is ultimately the wave of the future. … The Legislature has in fact kind of picked up on the idea and last year passed two pieces of legislation in regards to carpet and paint and extended producer responsibility. It’s now a program which we will be overseeing as it develops further. And, as you suggest, what it does is asks manufacturers that sell into the state of California, either paint or carpet, to develop a sustainability organization to oversee the end-of-life use of these products … ensuring that paint and carpet are recycled, or at least turned back into paint and carpet.

In terms of manufacturer responsibility, or product stewardship, what do you think is the next low-hanging fruit?

We understand that the Legislature will be considering batteries moving forward, or maybe sharps or pharmaceuticals, which is another problematic component of the waste stream.

Let’s talk household hazardous waste. My sense is, insofar as what goes into landfills, it’s a pretty significant concern.

It’s certainly up there. There are some pretty robust programs in the state that prevent household hazardous waste from going into the landfills, but it’s still disposed of in great quantities.

When I go to the landfills, I think, “If we talk to people, at least in Sacramento, and say to them …”

“Stop disposing of your incandescent light bulbs or your waste paint,” they’d say, “Well, what the heck do we do with them?”

Yes. I think if we called a thousand people in Sacramento and said, “What’s the answer?” I don’t think they could tell us. But then if there’s any organization that should know that answer, it should be you. But without a clue, how can we even be good citizens? We essentially close our eyes and put stuff into landfills even though most of us know we shouldn’t.

This is absolutely true. There are not enough alternatives for our citizenry to manage all their waste appropriately. It’s all a function of money and statutory requirements.

So what comes first? The agency coming out and saying, “We have a real problem and here’s what we need to do”? Or do we wait for the Legislature to say, “Please go solve this problem”?

I don’t think there’s any lack of understanding on the Legislature’s part. I mean, I think there’s a general understanding within the administration and within the Legislature that this is a problem that continues to exist for which there are not sufficient resources to do this comprehensively.

So, we’re way ahead of the rest of the world, but …

But there are challenges that continue to exist out there that we need to do better at.

One thing you mentioned earlier is that the recycling industry is as big as the movie industry. I believe you there, that makes a lot of sense in terms of what I know. So what three or four things should we do going forward? What do you recommend?

I think in our arena, the solid-waste arena, I think it’s the continued embracing of the extended producer responsibility model that will take us a huge way down the road in any number of aspects: household hazardous waste, the benefits to climate change. I think the fundamental notion of a sea change about the movement of our materials away from being disposed and treatment as a commodity and this whole application of extended producers responsibilities is really—

It’s gigantic.

It’s huge.