May 13, 2009
Thinking about tossing a burnt out light bulb, dead iPod or an old vinyl shower curtain into the trash? Once an item is thrown away it is “out of sight and out of mind,” but is it really gone? Unfortunately, these products have a way of making their way back into our lives in the form of dioxin, mercury, lead and other hazardous chemicals in our air, water, soil and food. On Thursday, the Massachusetts’ legislature’s Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture will hold a hearing on several bills designed to address this problem.
Among those being heard are a proposed moratorium on increased capacity of trash incinerators and three bills that would reduce the toxicity of the waste stream by requiring manufacturers to take back electronics, mercury-containing thermostats, and mercury-containing light bulbs at the end of their useful lives. The hearing will be at 11:00 in room A-2 of the State House.
“Products loaded with heavy metals and other toxins do not belong in the trash, but citizens do not have any easy way to dispose of them,” said Elizabeth Saunders, Environmental Health Legislative Director for Clean Water Action. “The Legislature has to take action. Many cash-strapped cities and towns simply can’t be expending resources on collecting these products at this point in time,” said Elizabeth Saunders, Environmental Health Legislative Director for Clean Water Action.
Making manufacturers responsible for taking back their products will help boost the state’s recycling rate and reduce the amount of trash that must be disposed of. Massachusetts incinerates more of its solid waste than any other state in the nation except Connecticut and Maine. Legislation to prevent the construction of new incinerator capacity in Massachusetts was filed by Representative Mark Falzone (D-Saugus) who said, “Massachusetts already incinerates 34 percent of its municipal solid waste, a huge amount when compared to other states. All my bill would do is prevent us from building more incinerators and increasing the exposure our residents are already subjected to.”
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is linked to learning disabilities, brain damage, heart problems, kidney problems and many more health effects. The primary way that people are exposed to mercury is through eating contaminated fish, and it is particularly a concern for young children, pregnant women and women of childbearing age. A significant amount of the mercury pollution in our lakes, rivers and oceans comes from the incineration of mercury containing products. A 2004 estimate from EPA showed 59 tons of mercury in lamps across the country and 209 tons in thermostats – most of which will eventually land in the trash, and thus in our air and water, if effective recycling and collection programs are not established.
“When haphazardly disposed of, “green” light bulbs and thermostats can create an environmental health problem, since the health effects of mercury poisoning have been well known for over a century,” said Michael Bender, Executive Director of the Mercury Policy Project. “Yet towns and cities can’t afford the costs of toxic discards. Therefore, it’s high time that manufacturers develop a take back plan for their products and make it work.”
Dioxin is not intentionally manufactured; it is a by-product of combustion of products that contain chlorine, such as PVC, which many computer casings are made of. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen and at low levels has been linked to abnormal development of the nervous system, malfunctioning of the immune and endocrine systems, birth defects, reproductive problems. Because of pollution from incineration and other sources meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy products are all contaminated with this toxic substance.
Said Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), lead Senate sponsor of the E-waste takeback bill, “‘E-waste’ – such as computers and televisions – makes up the fastest growing portion of trash collected by cities and towns in the Commonwealth – over 8 million pounds in 2006. These products contain significant amounts of toxic substances which can cause untold health problems. We need to make sure these products are recycled responsibly and prevent dangerous chemicals from leaching into our soil and drinking water.”
“Manufacturers who claim they’ve solved the e-waste and thermostat collection problems in Massachusetts on their own are just wrong,” added Representative Frank Smizik (D-Brookline). “These laws are important because they will require businesses to take financial responsibility for recycling their products. It will encourage the development of cleaner products to make recycling easier, while supporting cash-strapped cities, towns and consumers during these tough times.” Smizik is the sponsor of both the thermostat take back and e-waste take back bills.
Falzone, who is also the sponsor of the light bulb collection bill added, “We need to provide Massachusetts residents with the tools they need to properly dispose of these products and make healthy choices for their families and communities. Many people don’t know that fluorescent lights contain mercury and should not go into the trash, and wouldn’t have an easily accessible way to recycle them even if they did. Requiring the manufactures to take responsibility for these lights will solve this problem and keep the costs from falling onto our already overburdened cities and towns.”
In 2006 the Massachusetts Mercury Products Act was passed which banned the sale of thermostats and other mercury-containing products (but did not ban the sale of mercury containing light bulbs because there is not a viable mercury-free energy efficient alternative). The bill also banned the disposal of all mercury-containing products including thermostats and fluorescent lights in the trash. However, without convenient and accessible recycling options, particularly for households, many of these products continue to be thrown into the waste stream and burned in incinerators.