Dim Bulbs: stewardship dispute generates more heat than light

TakeBackTheLightI dislike getting in between different service providers when they have a dispute, especially when I consider the parties professional colleagues and even friends. And I normally don’t consider myself qualified to say that the services of Company A are better than those of Company B. We’re a business publication and not a peer-reviewed journal, so that’s not our mandate in the first place.

But I’m compelled as the editor of a magazine on recycling to report a disagreement that has emerged between the operators of a program that audits and certifies companies for their collection and recycling of fluorescent lamps and a company that elected not to participate in the program.

The dispute is emblematic of some of the kinds of complex issues that will arise with other materials as more and more byproduct wastes are made subject to product stewardship or extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs in future, to keep the materials out of landfill and assign costs to producers.

One of the concerns about such programs is about the standards via which different service providers operate. If folks are paying stewardship fees (either visible eco fees or costs incorporated into the retail price of goods) are they getting value for money? Do the fees reflect the true cost of reuse and recycling? And where does the material end up? Does it get reincorporated into new paint, batteries, tires, electronics or whatnot, or does it get get mixed in with road-bed aggregate or shipped to China for low-value recycling in dangerous conditions (so-called “downcycling”)?

Proponents of a battery stewardship program in Ontario recently garnered bad press when it emerged that their program (which operates in some other provinces) sends used battery to a smelter in the United States and some of the material ends up in roads.

The dispute over used fluorescent lamps involves two organizations. The first is the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) that, among other things, operates an audit program for recycling that holds recyclers accountable to a verifiable standard. Called 3RCertified, the program verifies that recyclers actually do what they’re expected with materials they collect. I think this is a great idea and we’ve published at least one article explaining the program to readers.

The RCO also operates a program called Take Back the Light, which provides this kind of verification auditing to fluorescent lamp recycling companies and then promotes them to customers (e.g., companies with lots of these lamps that need recycling). There’s a benefit to the companies in being a member company of Take Back the Light, and the RCO benefits by collecting a royalty from member companies (in addition to helping boost recycling rates of this dangerous mercury-containing product).

So, what’s the problem? Turns out that a company with the eponymous name Ontario Lamp Recyclers Inc.  chose not to join the program, for a number of reasons outlined in their letter that I reproduce in full below. Their complaint is not against the RCO or Take Back the Light or its member companies, per se — the company has no problem with fair competition and doesn’t expect market competitors to sing its praises. Almost everyone in the waste recycling business is familiar with the “school of hard knocks.”

The problem, as Ontario Lamp Recyclers states it, is that the RCO/Take Back the Light chose to name the company as “unapproved” in a recent letter made available to customers (in an emailed “Approved Processors Announcement”). This is where RCO/Take Back the Light may have crossed a line. It’s fair enough to extoll the virtues of the TBLT program and list the companies that have passed verification auditing, and even to promote them in the market. However, Ontario Lamp Recyclers objects to being singled out as “unapproved” by the program.

The reason this is disturbing is for its potential to create market confusion.

Let’s face it: a lot of new stewardship programs are being introduced each year in most Canadian provinces. It’s hard even for full-time policy analysts and consultants to keep track of who’s responsible for what, let alone the waste generating organizations who must comply with a confusing array of programs. (Pity the poor environment VP at a company like Walmart or Canadian Tire who has to keep his company in compliance in different provinces while selling national brands.)

When the end-user or customer learns that a certain company is unapproved under a stewardship program, it’s easy to imagine them thinking that the company is afoul of provincial regulations, or operating outside the purview a provincially-mandated Industry Funding Organization (IFO) such as exists for materials managed in other programs. Thing is, Take Back the Light is not a government-mandated stewardship program or IFO, but is, rather, a privately-operated voluntary program. Listing the TBTL member companies and then singling out Ontario Lamp Recyclers Inc as “unapproved” gives them a black eye in the marketplace. It’s worth noting that Ontario Lamp Recyclers is approved by Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and has to comply with detailed requirements in collecting and processing materials at its facility.

There’s also lots of opportunity for confusion as TBTL offers its services outside Ontario. Would a company in, say, Quebec or Manitoba, approached by TBTL staff, know the real status of TBTL as a private program with voluntary members? Would TBTL staff go out of their way to make this clear? One would hope so, but you can see the possibility for confusion.

Again, I’m not criticizing TBTL and I, in fact, support the idea of verification auditing. But I’m less comfortable with the idea that RCO or its divisions conduct the auditing (and collect fees) while at the same time acting as promoter of those companies in the marketplace. Contrast this with, say, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) that tests and verifies products (including fluorescent lamps, ironically) but doesn’t promote the products or companies in the market. I probably wouldn’t nitpick with TBTL publishing letters about its programs and the companies that it’s verified, but in listing Ontario Lamp Recyclers Inc. as not approved by its program seems to cross a certain line.

I’ve written all of the above less to “take sides” and more to set up the issue for readers as they read the letter from Ontario Lamp Recyclers and also the Take Back the Light letter, both of which I reproduce below. I want readers to make up their own minds, and I also want to promote the idea that in Ontario and other provinces this dispute points up some tricky territory and “unintended consequences” for jurisdictions introducing product stewardship/EPR and then allowing different entities to set up and promote programs in the marketplace.

(Note that I will provide space to RCO/TBTL to respond to this article in my next blog. I’m not aiming for “gotcha journalism” here, but rather a robust vetting of a difficult stewardship issue.)

First, here’s the letter from Ontario Lamp Recyclers (from the company’s Martin Hassenbach):

The Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) recently sent out via email an Approved Processors Announcement.

The note highlights the two companies that are approved to process lamps through their Take Back the Light (TBTL) program.  It also points out that “Ontario Lamp Recyclers (OLR) is not an approved Take Back the Light processor and is no longer in the process of joining Take Back the Light. Lights recycled through OLR are not verified and tracked to final disposition by Take Back the Light”.

The email was sent to TBTL participants, to companies not involved in the TBTL program and to companies not even members of the RCO.

We take issue with the insinuation that we are somehow not qualified to recycle lamps.

We have always been [Ministry of Environment] MOE approved, operating under four Environmental Compliance Approvals. We have never had a compliance or approvals issue in nearly ten years of operation. In fact, our annual MOE inspection successfully concluded two days before the RCO’s announcement.

This has nothing to do with any standards or performance requirements. It was the RCO that concluded our negotiations as we had hit an impasse with their Royalty Agreement. We took exception to their requirement for confidential client lists, that royalty payments were required, and logistical issues with identifying program participants. It was this failed Royalty Agreement that turned us into what the RCO characterizes as “competitors in our immediate market”.

We have always been, and will continue to be, an approved processor.


Martin Hassenbach



And here’s the letter from RCO/Take Back the Light:


Approved Processors Announcement  

Take Back the Light offers program participants two approved processors, Aevitas and Veolia, for light recycling.

These approved processors have had their light recycling facility audited against best practice principles developed by international bodies, which ensures lights are recovered and processed in a way that minimizes negative environmental impacts under strict health and safety procedures. As a result, the maximum amount of each bulb collected is recycled when lights are recycled through Take Back the Light.

Only Aevitas and Veolia have had their facilities audited through Take Back the Light.

Please note that Ontario Lamp Recyclers (OLR) is not an approved Take Back the Light processor and is no longer in the process of joining Take Back the Light. Lights recycled through OLR are not verified and tracked to final disposition by Take Back the Light.

For more information on our light recycling standards, visit www.takebackthelight.ca.

Program contacts:

Sarah Mills
Program Manager
416.657.2797 ext. 7

Jodi Houston
Outreach Manager
416.657.2797 ext. 10

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