Recycling Revisited

Managers rethink how they purchase and dispose of a growing array of products, from batteries and lamps to computers

By Dan Hounsell  

The challenges of recycling in institutional and commercial facilities have multiplied over the last decade, and the trend is toward even larger and more demanding challenges ahead. Where once organizations worried mostly about collecting, storing and recycling materials such as paper and aluminum, facilities now must separate a new group of products from the waste stream.

Fluorescent lamps, computer electronics, batteries and additional products have joined the list of items that maintenance and engineering managers must consider more carefully. This is true whether they are purchasing products for use by their front-line maintenance technicians or when developing and implementing recycling and waste-management programs for their facilities.

Culture Shift

Recycling has gone from something of a feel-good activity in its infancy to an increasingly scrutinized, regulated and complex process.

“It’s not just doing the right thing anymore,” says Janet Brown, a former director of waste management at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “Now, regulations demand that you do the right thing.”

Driven by tougher government regulations and the “green” movement, tied increasingly to organizations’ bottom lines, and shaped by the growing array of products moving through facilities, recycling is emerging as among the most complex and important issues facing managers.

Large institutional and commercial facilities — primarily medical and education organizations — generally are further along in the sophistication of their recycling and waste-management programs. For medical facilities, this situation arises in part from the specialized products and materials used in providing health care.

But this situation also arises from the sheer size of many of these operations and their need more than a decade ago to determine how to handle these materials safely and cost-effectively. Unfortunately, managers interested in getting a handle on recycling issues and requirements often had little formal guidance.

“There just wasn’t a lot information,” says Brown, who now works as partners coordinator for the Hospitals for a Healthy Environment. “We didn’t know a lot. Most of the focus was on waste reduction.”

Most managers had to fend for themselves. For example, physical plant officials at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst knew that hazardous materials in computer electronics presented an environmental hazard if disposed of improperly. So they began diverting computer electronics from the university waste stream in the early 1990s, says John Pepi, general manager for the university’s office of waste management, which is part of the physical plant department.

The campus, with 412 buildings and about 9.9 million square feet of space, generated a huge amount of computer electronics, he says. But not knowing exactly what to do with them, the university stored them until processes emerged for separating the hazardous materials in the products and recycling remaining parts.

The university also began collecting and recycling fluorescent lamps and batteries relatively early, again because the campus community was generating them in such large amounts.

Space Matters

The large amount of recyclable materials continues to have ramifications today. One of the toughest challenges facing managers is finding space for collection, sorting and storage. Some organizations have the advantage of large facilities that can house collected materials until they can be disposed of.

“There’s a lot we can do because of the fact that we have an 18,000-square-foot processing facility,” Pepi says. Large storage facilities enable some organizations to hold down shipping costs by minimizing the number of trips material haulers must make to pick up collected materials. As as the list grows of materials that departments separated from the general waste stream, organizations with limited storage space will continue to face higher costs associated with hauling away collected materials.

The New Wave

Mercury-containing products and equipment are perhaps the most-scrutinized materials related to recycling these days. While fluorescent lamps have been on managers’ radar for a number of years, a range of other products that contain mercury, from batteries to thermometers and thermostats, in recent years have become the focus of expanded environmental concerns and recycling requirements.

For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a Web site designed to give facilities federal and state information on minimizing and managing mercury-containing waste.

For information on additional programs and resources targeting recycling and disposal or mercury-containing products and equipment, as well as other related Web sites, see the accompanying article above.

Also consider this: The amount of mercury reclaimed from thermostats rose by 18 percent from 2002 to 2003, according to the Thermostat Recycling Corp., a private corporation that was formed by three thermostat manufacturers and affiliated with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The figure rose by 65 percent in the last two years.

Pepi says that his department handles two to three tons of batteries annually. They range from household C and D batteries and nickel cadmium batteries used to power cordless tools, as well as automobile batteries.

“The number of batteries we’re seeing certainly isn’t letting up,” he says, adding that the growing use of cordless power tools by maintenance and engineering departments means the flow will continue.

The next wave of materials that managers will have to plan for includes cell phones and beepers, Brown says. While the hazardous elements of this group of items generally are their batteries, users more often than not simply upgrade to a new device and throw out the entire old unit, including the battery, without separating the components and disposing of them properly.

Making it Work

As organizations’ recycling and waste-minimization efforts receive more scrutiny, managers can take several actions to ensure the programs’ effectiveness.

On the front side, managers can talk with manufacturers about take-back programs for disposing of products such as computer electronics at the end of their useful lives. Battery manufacturers also have begun programs to help users properly dispose of used batteries.

Brown emphasizes the role of the front-line workers in recycling success.

“These are the people who can make or break the program,” she says. Managers need to publicize program successes and give credit — and even reward — workers handling the materials daily, she says. If the program generates any revenue, managers can decide how much goes back into the department budget and how much goes to reward department employees.

Managers also should pay attention to giving workers the tools they need to do the work, including information.

“Training is important for anybody involved in this process because we’re handling these materials from cradle to grave,” Pepi says. “The people who handle these materials should know about regulations and know what the hazards are.”

And many managers know all too well the hazards associated with recycling. For example, Pepi says, the university used to collect and store spent fluorescent tubes in trailers. But a large number of broken tubes created a hazardous waste risk and prompted a large and costly cleanup operation.

Finally, managers should revisit their organization’s structure to determine if the current arrangement of processes and responsibilities enables their organizations to work efficiently.

Says Pepi, “For everything to work smoothly, you need to have all of the parties under one umbrella, and you need good communications.”

Waste Watch: Mercury on the Rise

Maintenance and engineering managers seeking more information on minimizing, handling and properly disposing of mercury-containing products can visit these Web sites:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Mercury Management site offers comprehensive information from federal and state programs, as well as from non-government resources.
  • The National Electrical Manufacturers Association site provides information on recycling mercury-containing lamps, including regulatory updates and contact information for lamp recyclers.
  • The Institution Recycling Network is a cooperative whose members oversee facilities’ recycling and waste-management efforts. Information available from the Web site includes collection and pick-up options, a group-purchase program, and a new initiative targeting cell phones and other handheld products.
  • The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. Web site provides information on locating a site for battery collection and on state laws related to properly disposing of batteries.
  • Hospitals for a Healthy Environment aims, among other goals, to virtually eliminate mercury in the health care waste stream by 2005. The site also offers information on “green” purchasing, medical waste, pesticides and housekeeping chemicals.
  • The Health Care Without Harm Web site, a coalition of 435 organizations seeking to minimize the environmental impact of healthcare, offers guidance on mercury and waste reduction in medical facilities.

— Dan Hounsell

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  posted on 4/1/2004   Article Use Policy

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