Why Producer Responsibility Makes Sense for Rhode Island

Jerry Elmer

CFL light bulb. Courtesy of AZAadam @ flickr. Creative Commons lisence.

Last Thursday evening, March 29th, the R.I. House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources held a hearing on a product-stewardship bill, H-7443. I was present, and I testified on behalf of CLF in favor of the bill (see below for a summary of my testimony). Also present were paid lobbyists for the National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA), who testified against the bill.

The product-stewardship bill, introduced by Representatives Walsh, Ruggiero, Tanzi, Handy, and Naughton, would provide a safe, easy way to recycle new, energy-efficient light bulbs known as compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs. CFLs are generally good for the environment, because they use much less electricity than conventional bulbs, and therefore they lead to lower carbon emissions (since electricity is a major source of carbon). But CFLs also contain mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can get into ground water and the environment if the bulbs are not disposed of properly.

This product-stewardship bill would do two things.

  • First, it would establish a mechanism for DEM to create a statewide system for responsible disposal of old, used mercury-containing CFLs, at the expense of the manufacturers.
  • Second, it would provide a mechanism for manufacturers of other products to develop voluntary product stewardship or recycling programs for their own products within the state. In fact, here in Rhode Island, paint manufacturers – working with DEM and the environmental community – have already developed such a voluntary stewardship program for paint, and were presenting the fruits of their labors to the House Environment Committee last week also!

Unfortunately, H-7443 brought industry out in force to oppose the bill. NEMA sent an out-of-state paid lobbyist; Phillips sent their General Counsel; and Sylvania sent an executive – all to testify against the stewardship bill. The argument of these lobbyists was very simple: the light-bulb industry has taken voluntary steps in recent years to reduce the mercury content of CFLs by almost 90%; therefore, they claimed, this law is unnecessary.

I got to testify right after the industry lobbyists. Basically, I told the Committee that there were two compelling reasons why H-7443 should be passed – despite the fact that what the industry representatives had said was completely true.

First, there are millions of CFLs in use right now; all of them contain dangerous mercury; all will need to be disposed of eventually. The fact that these CFLs contain less mercury than they might does not address the main benefit and purpose of this bill: to safely address the disposal of lots of toxic mercury that is out there and in use. I was delighted to see that, during the course of the hearing, both Representative Walsh and Representative Tanzi spoke to this exact point.

Second, the bill provides for a voluntary framework for manufacturers of products other than CFLs to take responsible actions for the stewardship and recycling of products that they put into the stream of commerce. Representative Walsh did a superb job last night explaining this part of the bill, and – based on what I saw at the Committee hearing – I believe that it has wide support.

The short of it is this: NEMA argued vigorously at last week’s committee hearing against sensible product stewardship. While NEMA’s argument was factually correct (less mercury goes into CFLs today than a decade ago), it was also completely irrelevant. Mercury is mercury; toxin is toxin.

I am pleased to say that last week it seemed that the members of the House Environment Committee understood these points.

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