Business & Economy

State allows competition for e-waste recycling

Contentious contract negotiations for control of Vermont’s electronic waste recycling stream are starting to simmer down. But with the changed landscape come new rules and new challenges, if not land mines.

Discarded electronics, called e-waste. Creative Commons photo by JohnJMatlock via Flickr

Discarded electronics, called e-waste. Creative Commons photo by JohnJMatlock via Flickr

The Department of Environmental Conservation has allowed Good Point Recycling, of Middlebury, back into a statewide program that lets Vermonters recycle used electronics for free. The former state contractor and sole dealer in the state’s discarded televisions, computers and printers has dropped a lawsuit against the state and now will compete with Casella Waste Systems for access to the scrap.

Good Point will operate an independent e-waste recycling plan on behalf of electronics manufacturers, while Casella runs Good Point’s former domain: the state’s e-waste recycling plan.

Both are free to residents. Manufacturers pick up the tab, ultimately passing the cost along in prices for new electronic devices.

Vermont’s e-waste recycling program is managed within the Department of Environmental Conservation, which is part of the Agency of Natural Resources. “E-cycles” is three years old, but competition for salvaged goods is new.

David Mears, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the department’s priority is to ensure convenience for consumers and safe handling of the material.

“We don’t want any of these entities to be in default of their obligations,” said Mears.

That will involve some “shuttle diplomacy,” he said.

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“We’re trying to get to a solution that doesn’t involve litigation,” Mears said. “We have no beef with either company. We’re just trying to make sure they meet the minimum statutory requirements of the program.”

Robin Ingenthron, buoyed by a hard-won approval for his independent plan, is optimistic.

“Before, by running the table, Casella and North Coast (Casella’s transporter) could put me out of business — or come so close to it that they negotiated with all the cards,” Ingenthron said. Now, he hopes to talk Casella into replacing its chosen recycler with Good Point.

“We can all wear white hats and sing ‘Oklahoma,'” Ingenthron said. The collaboration would build on the work Good Point and Casella have done together in various capacities for years, he said.

Michael Casella directed all inquiries to Casella Vice President Joe Fusco, who could not be reached for comment by press time.

Hairy negotiations resolved

In August, DEC stopped negotiating with Northeast Resource Recovery Association for renewal of its contract running the state’s “standard” e-waste recycling program. The New Hampshire-based nonprofit had held the contract for three years, during which time Good Point had built the program as subcontractor to NRRA.

In fall 2013, the new contract went to Casella instead, which in turn will subcontract to New Hampshire-based North Coast Services for transport of the hazardous goods and to the Finnish firm Kuusakoski for recycling out of Philadelphia or Peoria, Ill.

Shortly after granting the contract to Casella, DEC then rejected a bid by Good Point to operate an independent plan, as allowed by state law.

Persuaded to reconsider, the Department of Environmental Conservation let Good Point back in on Nov. 22.

Good Point’s independent plan was approved the same day the company and NRRA dropped two lawsuits that were filed in Superior Court in September, when Good Point and NRRA charged the agency with improper procurement practices.

In a letter also dated Nov. 22, DEC changed some of the program’s ground rules to accommodate the new competition for a robust yet finite market of discarded electronics.

Good Point reported more than 4.8 million pounds of e-waste collections in the program’s first year. Vermont’s average of 7.7 pounds per resident far surpasses that of the roughly two dozen other states that also require electronics recycling, according to an ANR report published this year.

New rules, remaining questions

Mears said his department is working with both Casella and Good Point to facilitate logistics of transitioning to a newly competitive system.

Both companies have an extension to sign up manufacturers to each of their plans — although Good Point can only tap the manufacturers that initially signed onto its independent application. Good Point and Casella both have still more time to land memorandums of understanding with e-waste collectors — mostly town transfer stations and solid waste management districts.

Additionally, the minimum number of collection locations each company must meet has been dropped, from 85 to 52 by Feb. 10, 2014. If each company meets that minimum, the total number will just pass the roster of 102 Good Point had built in its previous three years running the state contract.

Should a collection location not sign an MOU, either company would have the right to terminate services to the site after a 10-day notice period, according to a letter from DEC program manager Cathy Jamieson to Good Point and Casella.

Ingenthron says he is confident his company can attain the goal.

“We already had 73,” he said. “So that was certainly not for us.”

Mears implied that divvying up the 102 existing locations is a matter of neither simple competition, nor math.

“Which company is going to cover which collection point and make sure they have enough time to talk to the manufacturers?” Mears said.

The paperwork granting Good Point authority to collect, transport and recycle the hazardous materials takes effect Dec. 1. But that doesn’t mean it has taken hold yet, Mears said.

He said part of logistical arrangements includes setting the “right date” with both Casella and Good Point, as well as collectors, to ensure a seamless transition.

One clause written into Casella’s state contract remains in place and is now triggered by the independent plan: The company is guaranteed at least $720,000 for up to the first 2 million pounds of e-waste it moves.

Technically, that guarantee applies no matter how much Casella collects. At 2 million pounds, the payment will be 36 cents per pound. At half the collections, the payment per pound would double to 72 cents.

“The company has every incentive and we expect that they will go on beyond the 2 million pounds,” Mears said. “They’ll probably be closer to 3 or 4 million.”

Update: This article was updated on Dec. 6, 2013.

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Hilary Niles

About Hilary

Hilary Niles joined VTDigger in June 2013 as data specialist and business reporter. She returns to New England from the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, where she completed her master's coursework. While there, she worked at Investigative Reporters & Editors and covered state and local government for radio, print and the Web. She’s been a researcher-in-residence at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, D.C.; a reporter and community radio program director in the New Hampshire; and, in Boston, a public radio producer. She studied English at the University of New Hampshire and documentary writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine.

Email: [email protected]

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