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First Reading: From hazardous waste, good business

Published (5/16/2008)
By Nick Busse
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According to the Pollution Control Agency, 10 percent of the 13 million gallons of paint sold every year in Minnesota — 1.3 million gallons — is never actually used. A bill sponsored by Rep. Brita Sailer is designed to make it easier for consumers to recycle unwanted paint by having the manufacturers collect it at retail locations. Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it May 15, in part because it would have established a paint stewardship fee. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)

Spring is typically a busy time of year for employees at Bay West, Inc. The company’s St. Paul headquarters, located just a few blocks northeast of the Capitol, serves as Ramsey County’s public drop-off site for household hazardous waste. According to Household Hazardous Waste Team Manager Janice Noggle, springtime means spring cleaning — which means people are dropping off a lot of old paint.

Liquid paint is considered a hazardous waste, which means it can’t be legally dumped in the normal trash. Currently, the responsibility for recycling it falls largely on counties, which contract with companies like Bay West, passing the recycling costs on to property taxpayers, to the tune of $5 million per year. Those costs are steadily growing — a trend that has alarmed officials like Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt.

“Even if we wanted to, the cost is getting more and more and more,” Reinhardt said. “We simply have other priorities. We can’t continue to do this.”

Some think there might be a better way. A bill sponsored by Rep. Brita Sailer (DFL-Park Rapids) would establish a first-in-the-nation pilot program that asks paint manufacturers to recycle their own product. If successful, the program could create a national model that would take the burden of waste paint off the backs of taxpayers and into the hands of private industry.

If it sounds like big government interfering with the free market, think again: the idea behind the project came from the paint manufacturers themselves. Reinhardt said the reason is simple: instead of trying to navigate 50 different sets of environmental laws in 50 different states, the paint industry wants to take the initiative and come up with its own uniform system.

“Their argument to us — and it made sense — was, ‘We know our industry and you don’t. Why don’t you let us design it and we’ll take responsibility for it,’” Reinhardt said.

The bill would authorize establishment of a paint stewardship organization funded by a fee of no more than 40 cents per every container of paint sold to consumers in the state. Consumers could drop off unwanted paint cans at participating retailer locations, where they would be collected and recycled by the organization. The program would expire June 30, 2010, with an evaluative report due from the Pollution Control Agency to the Legislature by Jan. 15 of that year.

For now, however, the program will have to wait. Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bill May 15.

In his veto message, Pawlenty said that the bill provided “little assurance that taxpayers will see any relief” if it were to become law. He further stated that Minnesotans already support paint recycling through their taxes, and the bill would essentially impose a second government-mandated payment for the same purpose.

Sailer said she is disappointed by the governor’s decision, and plans to try again next year; however, she worries that by then it might be too late, and the manufacturers might decide to try their luck with another state.

“The crux of the matter is, will they choose Minnesota again, or will they say, ‘Let’s go to another state?’ I mean, has Minnesota lost that opportunity?” she said.

A new approach

The basis for the paint recycling pilot program is part of a larger concept called “product stewardship.” The basic idea is that all parties involved in the life of a product — designer, producer, retailer and consumer — should share in the responsibility of that product’s environmental impacts.

“With product stewardship, it becomes something that’s more direct, not only with the people that produce it — the manufacturers — but also with the people that buy the product, the people that deal with the product,” Sailer said. “Whereas, if you put it on the tax base, everybody’s paying for it — people that may or may not ever use that product, whether it’s computers or paint or pesticides.”

The paint recycling initiative wouldn’t be the first time a product stewardship approach has been used in Minnesota — although, as supporters note, it’s the first time that the industry brought the proposal forward itself.

Sailer actually sponsored a similar measure last year that required electronics manufacturers to recycle an amount of consumer electronics equal to 80 percent of the volume sold during the previous year. In contrast to the paint program, the e-waste law, as it became known, was accepted somewhat grudgingly by the state’s business community.

Rep. Dennis Ozment (R-Rosemount), who has been a vocal advocate for product stewardship, said that having an industry advocate so vocally for a manufacturer’s responsibility approach to recycling is unprecedented.

“I really hope the manufacturers get a pat on the back for what they’re doing. They’re really stepping up to the plate,” Ozment said.

There is always the possibility that the pilot program would fail; however, if it did succeed, it would likely spawn similar legislation for other types of products. Reinhardt hopes that the paint stewardship model could be exported to other hazardous waste-producing industries like pharmaceuticals.

“Each model, depending on the industry, is going to be a little bit different. But I think the product stewardship approach in general, and manufacturer responsibility — we can take that to the things that are most troublesome either in our facilities or landfills,” Reinhardt said.

Skeptics cry foul

Not everyone is excited about this new approach to recycling paint.

During a pair of sometimes heated debates on the House floor April 24 and May 8, several members expressed concerns about the potential impact of the program on taxpayers. Some said the paint stewardship fee amounted to a “handyman’s tax” — one that forced residents who were already paying for county recycling programs to pay a second time. Rep. Chris DeLaForest (R-Andover) called it “unjust in the extreme.”

“There will be taxpayers out there in Minnesota who will pay through their property taxes for the recycling of paint, and they’ll also pay at the retail level. It’s double taxation,” DeLaForest said. Pawlenty echoed these sentiments in his veto message.

Along similar lines, Rep. Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) wondered aloud whether Sailer’s bill would set up a system that would merely allow paint producers to bilk consumers out of their money.

“I think I’m seeing a little bit more and more now why the manufacturers are in favor of this. We’re going to charge the consumer, the manufacturers are going to collect their product, bring it back in and then sell it again,” Zellers said.

Reinhardt rejects the “double-taxation” thesis, arguing that the whole point of the paint stewardship program is to save taxpayers’ money; however, she also admits that residents may not see any immediate, direct reduction in their property taxes.

“Whatever the county is paying for waste paint right now, we would no longer have to pay, period. Now does that mean that it’s automatically a reduction of that amount off of property taxes or off of the waste programs? Not necessarily. It depends on what other costs are going up.”

In regard to arguments that paint manufacturers might somehow abuse the program, Ozment said the PCA will oversee the paint stewardship organization’s finances, and notes that the bill forbids the manufacturers from setting the stewardship fee higher than it needs to be to cover the program’s costs.

More importantly, Ozment said the product stewardship approach is likely to be more effective than the current government programs because it would simply be easier for people to recycle their unwanted paint.

“It’s nice to know that when I go to buy my next gallon of paint, I can take the old stuff with me and turn it over. It’s not going to cost me anything at that point. … If it’s not made easy and low-cost, then I’ll try to figure out, ‘Well, how can I get rid of this stuff?’ And I may pick some choices that are not the best for the environment. The bottom line is we’re really trying to protect the environment,” he said.

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