Slashing EPA’s Budget Will Hinder Efforts to Improve Environmental Regulations

Posted on April 5, 2017 by Mark R. Sussman

          Since the election of President Trump and appointment of EPA Administrator Pruitt, more than a few articles and blogs have been written about the new administration’s plans to dismantle EPA, including the proposal to cut EPA’s budget by almost one third.   Even if one agrees that EPA needs to be “down-sized,” the massive cuts proposed by the Trump Administration are counter-productive.   If EPA fires thousands of environmental professionals, who will be left to repeal or revise unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations?  Unlike Executive Orders, regulations cannot be rescinded or revised with the stroke of a pen.

          The hazardous waste regulations adopted to implement RCRA provide a case in point.  The Obama EPA adopted the final Hazardous Waste Generator Improvements Rule (discussed by a recent blog by Donald Stever) at the end of last year, acknowledging that the RCRA regulations are in many cases ambiguous, contain inconsistencies, and lack flexibility.  EPA took a year to address more than 200 comments before it finalized the rule.  Other aspects of the RCRA regulations also need to be modernized to encourage, rather than discourage, the reuse of materials derived from waste.

          Just one example involves the recycling of mercury-containing lamps, which have been regulated as Universal Waste since 1995.  Although fluorescent lamp manufacturers have reduced the amount of mercury in their lighting over time, such lamps are regulated as Universal Waste because many lamps exhibit the toxicity characteristic for mercury; and thus, would be classified as D009 hazardous waste.  While the Universal Waste Rules simplify the management of mercury containing lamps, the hazardous waste regulations and longstanding EPA interpretations of these rules impede the reuse of materials recovered through the recycling of universal waste lamps. 

          Two of the primary materials produced through lamp recycling are calcium phosphate powder and crushed glass.  Calcium phosphate powder removed from fluorescent lamps contains mercury at levels below the hazardous waste threshold, and the amount of mercury in such powder is typically further reduced by a retorting process.  Significantly, the phosphate powder also contains several rare earth elements, including Europium, Terbium and Yttrium, which are considered strategic materials by the United States Government, because of the need for such elements in many military and high-tech commercial products, such as cell phones, computer hard drives and other electronic equipment, and precision-guided munitions. 

          China controls about 95% of the production of rare earth elements.   Therefore, recycling calcium phosphate powder to produce rare earths provides a sustainable, domestic source of rare earths needed in the U.S. economy.  Unfortunately, as a waste derived material, regulators have limited the ability of businesses to stockpile calcium phosphate powder for future recycling, and much of this material is currently being disposed of in landfills, rather than being reserved for the recovery of rare earths.   

          Similarly, the crushed glass produced by lamp recycling has characteristics that make it a useful substitute for sand and other materials used in construction operations, such as for road sub-base and pipe bedding materials.  EPA’s view, however, is that since Universal Waste lamps would be considered D009 hazardous waste, glass produced as part of the recycling process is in the same hazardous waste treatability group as the initial universal waste lamps, and therefore, is subject to the Land Disposal Restrictions (LDR) for D009 –non-wastewaters. Thus, the glass must be tested to demonstrate compliance with the LDR standard of 0.025 mg/l for mercury using the TCLP test (designed to assess leachate in a landfill environment), before the glass can be used on land as a substitute for other products.  While the glass from lamp recycling typically complies with the LDR standard, the additional regulatory process discourages the reuse of this glass as a substitute for raw natural resources.

          If President Trump were truly interested in alleviating “unnecessary regulatory burdens placed on the American people”, EPA needs the resources to review specific regulations and identify those regulatory changes that will accomplish the President’s goals.  Slashing EPA’s budget, before identifying and promulgating the regulatory changes, will likely result in missed opportunities for improving environmental regulations.  Instead, massive reductions in staff and efforts to rescind many regulations without careful consideration will lead to mistakes and litigation, which is in no one’s interest.  Businesses need certainty, and the approach outlined by President Trump’s Executive Orders will instead result in more confusion and uncertainty.

Landfills Stink – So Let’s Have More

Posted on May 27, 2016 by Charles F. Becker

In 1991, Iowa passed a law prohibiting the delivery of yard waste to landfills.  It was during a time when there was a general panic that landfills were filling up too fast.  Twenty-two states have passed similar laws.  They all saw it as a win-win: compost could be created and sold by the city and the landfills would last longer.  A couple short decades later, several states have had second thoughts.  In 2015, Iowa passed a law that allows certain landfills to start accepting delivery of yard waste.  The reasoning is instructive. 

Landfills contain a staggering amount of potential energy.  The tires, paper products and plastic wastes, when burned for energy recovery, could light up a town.  But the cost of getting the BTUs out of the waste doesn’t make economic sense – yet.  There are exciting, new processes on the horizon that will have us mining that garbage for the energy sink it actually is, but that is still a ways off.  One form of energy recovery that is economically viable, however, is methane recovery.  As the garbage breaks down, it gives off methane gas that can be captured and burned.  Many landfills across the country do this type of recovery and find it simple and profitable.

To effectively produce methane, however, garbage must degrade.  The recycling push of the 80s and 90s took away the really good degradables from the waste stream – boxes, newspapers and yard waste were targeted as prime recyclables.  The effect was that the best fuel for garbage degradation (and thus methane creation) was banned.  Sure, it went towards the worthy goals of paper recycling and creation of high quality compost, but at what cost?

Iowa decided to look into that question.  They considered the cost of producing compost from yard waste and compared it to the cost of recovering additional methane that would be made possible by returning the green gold of yard waste to the landfill degradation process.  As it turns out, recycling loses. 

            The analysis turned on a number of factors:

·         The cost of buying, maintaining and fueling the trucks, machinery and facility needed for composting would be eliminated resulting in a yearly savings of $2 million;

·         Methane recovery would increase from the equivalent of powering 11,000 homes to powering 18,000 homes;

·         According to a study commissioned by the city of Des Moines, annual greenhouse gas emission would be reduced by 11% and the landfilling option would provide more than three times the greenhouse gas benefit presented by composting. 

Sierra Club is on record as opposing the trend (Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Nebraska also now allow landfilling of yard waste) because it will result in landfills reaching capacity sooner.  In the case of one Iowa landfill, its estimated life would be reduced from 2054 to 2052.  Also, Sierra Club argues that more uncaptured greenhouse gases will be produced, but this seems to ignore the net savings from the other GHG reductions identified in the study.

I don’t have any idea whether returning yard waste to landfills is a net positive for the environment.  As counterintuitive as it seems, it appears to hold promise.  And if it does, where else might full cost accounting be used to guide environmental legislation?  At least some states are asking the question - and I suspect more will follow.

Product Stewardship – Coming to a state or locality near you

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Kenneth Gray

Product Stewardship.  It sounds friendlier than “Product Responsibility” or “Extended Producer Responsibility,” but it means the same thing:  arranging for collection and recycling or disposal of unused or waste products.  Mandatory in the European Union and the subject of aggressive national programs in Germany and a growing number of countries worldwide,  the U.S. has continued its state-by-state approach promoting recycling – but for a growing number of products and in more and more jurisdictions.

We may have initially started with glass, paper, and metal in the 1970’s, but the range of products and materials covered is now broad:  from batteries, tires, beverage containers, electronics, and tires, to carpets, mattresses, and paint.  Pharmaceuticals may be in the offing.  A new final rule from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would allow voluntary drug collection options for retail pharmacies, drug distributors, and hospitals/clinics with an on-site pharmacy.  

Of course, there is a “trade association” – the Product Stewardship Institute -- whose members are state and local governments and businesses and NGOs.  According to PSI, two states -- California (my birth state) and Maine (my adopted state) -- lead the country with seven or more different types of programs for products.   (To see how your state compares, see http://productstewardship.site-ym.com/?State_EPR_Laws_Map.)

 Legislatively, some of these programs were developed on a product-by-product basis, but both California and Maine have adopted over-arching framework product stewardship laws or regulations allowing the addition of more products.  And some municipalities aren’t being shy – the Ninth Circuit just upheld a 2012 ordinance from Alameda County, California requiring manufacturers to pay for collection and disposal of consumers’ unused medications. 

Some of these programs are after-market recycling operations.  Others are closer to product “take-back” requirements.  The common features of these schemes are a deadline for a program submission (e.g., from a trade association and retailers), fees and potential cost-sharing, management regulations and limited government oversight, and proper recycling or disposal options.  “Reverse distribution” options have been favored by some retailers, who benefit from the additional foot-traffic of potential shoppers – if they can stand the paperwork and regulatory burdens.

If you believe the literature, everyone is a winner:  municipalities have less waste to manage thereby reducing their disposal costs; recycling and reclamation occur reducing energy and greenhouse gasses; wastes are properly managed; and coveted “green” jobs are created.   Obviously, some costs are transferred to businesses in the short term (though as consumers or taxpayers, we all ultimately pay). 

More than a few manufacturers and industries are on board.  Some trade associations -- like the American Coatings Association -- have created non-profit organizations to promote and operate state programs.  ACA has set up PaintCare Inc., a non-profit operating paint collection programs in seven states, with more to come.

In advising the Republic of Kazakhstan on possible product stewardship plans, our firm had occasion to consider “best in world” programs.  By contrast to the U.S., the European Union has incorporated Extended Producer Responsibility into the E.U.’s Waste Framework Directive, 2008/98/EC.    At this point, Germany is probably leading the E.U. through its Closed Substance Cycle Law (KrWG),  intending to promote the “circular economy” by requiring products stewardship to be addressed during the design phase.  The goal?  Development, manufacture and marketing of products that are reusable, recyclable, durable and technically suitable for environmentally safe disposal.  While the U.S. plays out these issues on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction and product-by-product basis, Germany is trying a very ambitious comprehensive, national approach.   The German effort has run into the complicated realities of sharing collection costs among and between manufacturers and German state and local waste management programs.  The country faces additional challenges of collecting and recycling automobiles and all packaging materials, two of the more interesting programs being implemented.

Don’t expect a national law in the U.S. anytime soon, but watch this Product Stewardship trend – it is one of the more interesting developments in environmentalism – and look around.  What products will be next in your state?  Or in your county?  And yes, Kazakhstan is weighing adoption of an Extended Producer Responsibility law this fall.