Take Back Laws on Industries of the European Community

by Farzana Mohamed, Laura Sandler, Cesar Ramirez, and Jason C. Wong


The feasibility of implementing take back policies modeled after recent initiatives by Germany and the European Community was studied. Specifically, four candidate areas for take back were evaluated: beverage containers; transport packaging; automobiles; and computers and electronics. It was found that in each area except beverage containers, take back would be an effective way to improve upon current waste management and resource conservation practices in the United States.


Through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, the federal goverment formally declared the preservation of the environment to be in the best interest of the United States.[1] Over the past twenty years, local government, industry, and the American consumer have gradually begun to fulfill their role in making this formal declaration a reality. Waste dumps have been replaced by carefully monitored landfills. Safe protocols for the transport and storage of hazardous materials have been developed and implemented. In particular, programs for the reclamation, reuse, and recycling of a wide range of products have been adopted by over 80 percent of the states (see Table 1).[1]

Table 1: State Recycling Goals

While these changes represent a significant improvement in the way we think about and deal with our waste, their efficacy has an upper limit. In order for America to continue her advancement towards long-term sustainability, new methods for resource conservation and recovery must be researched and developed.

One idea which has become popular among European nations, and which holds promise in the foreseeable future, is the concept of take back. In itself, take back is a potential policy oriented solution to America's growing garbage disposal problem. It would make industries directly responsible for the recovery, reuse, and recycling of their used products and packaging.

In theory, such a policy would encourage businesses to design their products for optimal recyclability as well as to choose forms of packaging that are amenable to the take back requirement. In practice, however, such improvements in the operations and methodologies of industry would require concomitant technological advancements and infrastructure shifts.

In order to determine what technologies and infrastructures would need to be developed to allow the smooth implementation and integration of take back into America's waste management scheme, it is necessary to assess the current status of recycling today as well as to study current take back policy initiatives in Europe. In this way, this paper will present four candidate areas for take back, followed by a summary of the overall feasibility of such a policy in the United States.

Beverage Containers

One of the most highly visible and effective forms of recycling in the United States is the curbside pickup of aluminum and glass beverage containers. In 1989, Americans recycled 49.5 billion all-aluminum beverage cans, bringing the national aluminum can recycling rate to 60.8 percent.[2] By 1991, the aluminum can recycling rate had risen to 75 percent.[1] Currently, about 5 billion glass food and beverage containers are recycled each year.[2]

Besides the obvious materials benefit of recycling aluminum and glass beverage containers, considerable energy is also saved when the manufacturing process for such products begins at the recycled material stage as opposed to the virgin stage. For example, recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to make 19 more. Every glass bottle that is recycled can save enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours.[2]

It is apparent that the infrastructure and technology for the reclamation and recycling of aluminum cans and glass bottles is fairly well established in the United States. Although many European nations have reached higher levels of recycling in these areas, neither the political atmosphere nor the infrastructure in America would be conducive to adopting their methods. For example, the United Kingdom recovers its used milk bottles with close to a 100 percent take back rate because milk is still delivered to the doorstep, thus facilitating the pickup of old bottles. Such a mode of distribution does not exist in the United States. As a result, the cost of implementing a similar take back system would most likely outweigh the benefit of achieving a higher rate of reclamation and reuse.

In general, when evaluating the feasibility of take back, it is helpful to examine both the perceived cost and the predicted efficacy of the implementation. Costs can be divided among collection, sorting, storage, transport, public education, and training costs. Effectiveness can be measured by ease of return, durability of container, mode of distribution, comparative costs between reuse and recycling, and convenience to individual consumer.[3] The importance of such factors will be further elucidated by the remaining three candidate areas for take back.

Transport Packaging

Currently, packaging materials dominate the litter problem in the US and the proportion of packaging in waste continues to grow. It is evident that more than half of the paper and cardboard and most of the plastic in municipal waste is packaging materials.[4] Investigations have shown that conversion of virgin materials into a usable form accounts for up to 90 percent of the total energy usage in the production and distribution of a package.[4] In addition, over the last 15 years trends have indicated that the process energy contribution to the total product cost has roughly doubled from 10-15 percent to 20-30 percent, while the most significant cost for most processes still remains the conversion of raw material.[4] The packaging industry has attempted to transfer the problems of packaging waste and material recovery to the consumer or the community by pushing one-way packages. The additional cost of these packages and their disposal must be borne by the consumer.

With facts like these and knowing that it is so costly both in terms of expenditure and energy to convert raw materials to packaging, there must be a more economical and environmentally sound solution.

Europe has taken the initiative in attacking this problem by requiring industry to comply with a take back and recovery statute. In doing so, they are hoping to not only reduce total energy usage and cost but place an increased focus on preservation. A packaging law passed in Germany in 1991 sparked the European community to pass a Packaging Directive. It emphasizes "producer responsibility" laws that hold manufacturers responsible for their packaging. The Directive asks all 15 member countries to recover 50-60 percent of packaging material by weight by the year 2001[5] and various countries are responding. Overall, there are two countries following Germany's lead: Austria and Belgium. Both plan to mandate full "manufacturer's responsibility," relieving local government of any obligation to pick up packaging. Most countries will opt for the "shared responsibility" approach, however, in which local governments will collect the material--industry must insure that it is recycled.

For instance, Finland packagers just signed a voluntary agreement for take back, which involves materials organizations collecting, but no central structure. A draft law in Portugal would require manufacturers to either join an integrated organization or set up a deposit for their own packaging. Spanish companies must either place deposits on their packaging or join a central organization and pay fees to ensure recovery. Japan is developing a shared responsibility law and Taiwan already has a take back law in place.

The Netherlands, under a draft regulation, will place responsibility for meeting recovery rates for packaging on packers and importers. It proposes to offer companies the option of contracting with a combination of parties. The option will allow trade-offs between material categories, so long as each material is recycled at 15 percent.[6] As a result, this will allow for greater emphasis on commercial and industrial packaging.

With Europe already enacting take back laws and the fact that no proven infrastructure for take back or recycling exists for transport packaging in the United States, the implementation of such a program seems quite feasible. The current status is unacceptable in terms of economic and environmental expenditure. Steps are slowly being taken to consider take back for our country. Just two weeks ago, a conference was sponsored by Kranson Industries, one of the largest package design, development and sourcing firms in the nation, to discuss innovations in the use of recycled materials.


The history of automobile recycling is one of the success stories of the industry and deals with many of the issues involved in closing the materials cycle of durable products. Thirty years ago, this nation was facing a crisis as old cars began to fill up the junk yards. Today, the automobile is one of the most highly recycled products in the world.[7] How did such a drastic transformation take place in that short period of time?

Automobile recycling problems of the past were a consequence of two factors. First, changes in the technology of steelmaking, specifically the transition from the open hearth to basic oxygen furnace, reduced the demand for steel scrap. Second, rising labor costs made the price of producing quality scrap, from the low technology methods of hand disassembly and separation of metallic components, prohibitively high.[8]

Two technological developments, along with a special market situation, enabled industry to resolve these problems. The first breakthrough was the invention of electric arc steelmaking, a process dependent upon a substantial source of steel scrap. The second was the development of large scale mechanical shredding machines and magnetic separation facilities.[8]

These two advancements, combined with an unprecedented increase in demand for all raw materials during 1972, turned automobile recycling from an expensive environmentalist's dream to a profitable business venture.

Although automobile recycling continues to be successful today, the steady increase in the polymeric content of the modern car (see Figure 1) poses a definite threat to the automobile recycling industry. From an economic standpoint, the increase in automobile shredder residue (ASR) has the potential to greatly reduce the profitability of automobile resource recovery.

Figure 1: The Increasing Polymeric Content of The Modern Car (Source: The Recycling of Automobiles: Conflicting Environmental Objectives In A Competitive Marketplace)

Currently, the only commercial option for dealing with ASR is landfilling. Although the price for such disposal is relatively low today, future increases in landfill costs combined with the more extensive use of polymers could disfavorably tip the financial balance of the automobile recycling mechanism (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Automobile Recycling Mechanism (Source: The Recycling of Automobiles: Conflicting Environmental Objectives In A Competitive Marketplace)

An alternative method for dealing with ASR is pyrolysis. Through anaerobic heating of the organic fluff constituting ASR, it is possible to generate useful low grade petrochemicals, along with ash and additional heat. While pyrolysis is technologically feasible, research has shown that its implementation is inhibited by the modern economics of automobile recycling. The potential profit from the sale of pyro-petrochemicals could not offset the combined costs of acquiring the technology and procuring the ASR feedstock in the first place.

Improvement beyond the 75 percent recycling rate seems unlikely with the existing mechanisms for automobile resource recovery and reuse. Unless a technology comparable to the electric arc furnace is developed for handling ASR, the current recycling rate may begin to decrease in the years to come. Given the established limitations on automobile recycling, how effective would take back policy be in the source-reduction of ASR? To answer this question, it is necessary to look at current policy initiatives being undertaken in Europe, specifically Germany, to deal with automobile take back.

At the consumer level, the potential German legislation would require the end user to acquire a certificate of disposal, proof that ownership of the vehicle is transfered to a licensed dismantler. Automobile manufacturers would be required to distribute detailed dismantling manuals and to clearly label all product components. Manufacturers would also have to setup facilities for handling automobile recycling and ensure that their suppliers take back reclaimed parts and materials. Essentially, these measures would increase the number of ASR precursors that are removed before being shredded, and thus lower the percentage of the recycled automobile that ends up as fluff.

Currently, a take back policy similar to the German initiatives is the only option for increasing the recyclability of the automobile. Although research is underway in the separation and extraction of useful resins from ASR, the economic feasibility of the widespread use of such technology is unlikely for the same reasons that pyrolysis is not an option.

Computers and Electronics

The recycling of computers and electronics is a complex process that should be handled by the manufacturers, who have the best understanding of the structure and market value of their product. To this end, take back is the most suitable recovery policy for the management of this portion of the waste stream. Examples from both the United States and Germany illustrate the potential for take back to be effective on a large scale.

In the United States, Digital Equipment Corporation is currently taking back computers and electronic equipment, regardless of the manufacturer.[9] They have set up a list of all returned items, referred to as Digital's Idle Asset List (DIAL). The value of these items is assessed by the Resource Recovery Center (RRC) after which the items are sent through one of the 6R's (Reuse, Resale, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Reclaim or Recycle). As of now, 54.9 percent of the used products are recycled, 23.2 percent resold, and less than 1.0 percent sent to landfill.[10] This program is functional because Digital, being a company in the electronics field, is already able to assess products' value and determine what should be done to dispose of them.[9]

The complexity of electronics can be seen in the process used by the RRC for the disposal and reuse of reclaimed products. Printed circuit boards (PCBs), cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and other such complex components are separated from the plastics and metals, which are then identified and recycled.[10] PCBs are currently being recycled using a secondary copper smelter. Ninety-nine percent of the copper is being recovered, along with 90-100 percent of the other metals, including gold and silver.[11]

Due to the varying lead content of CRTs, it is difficult to convince a manufacturer to risk contaminating his glass with used CRT-glass, unless this returned glass is entirely that company's own product. Therefore, CRT-glass is generally not recycled. (Here, take back could make a great impact, yet nothing is currently being done.) The lead, however, is currently being recovered, using a secondary lead smelter.[12]

In Germany, a law has just been passed which mandates companies to take back their products or to set up easily accessible collection systems. The law, whose most recent draft was on October 15, 1992, does not set any recovery or recycling goals. However, it forces companies to avoid and reduce wastes by using more recyclable materials, designing products that can be dismantled and repaired more easily, and searching for new applications for used products.[13]

Both the United States and Germany have embraced the concept of take back for the reduction of computer and electronic waste. The present technology for the recycling of such waste is promising, and further research and development is currently being pursued. It is reasonable to expect that within the foreseeable future take back will become an integral part of advanced materials waste management.


The effectiveness of take back in reducing waste and conserving resources depends on three factors: the complexity of the product; the existing infrastructure; and the economics of the marketplace. As was illustrated with the study on electronics and computers, take back can be very effective in dealing with the reclamation, reuse, and recycling of complex products. It may also prove to be the optimal solution for reducing transport packaging waste, since no recycling infrastructure for this waste currently exists in the United States. In contrast, the example of beverage containers demonstrated the ineffectiveness of trying to force take back upon the existing curbside recycling infrastructure. Finally, the delicate market driven mechanism for automobile recycling elucidates the shortcomings of technological solutions to ASR landfilling such as pyrolysis and extraction, while emphasizing the need for ASR source reduction through industrial take back.

Works Cited

1. Lund, Herbert F. The McGraw-Hill Recycling Handbook. McGraw-Hill Inc., New York, 1993.

2. Kimball, Debi. Recycling In America. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, 1992.

3. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Beverage Containers: Re-use or Recycling. Paris, 1978.

4. Bridgewater, A.V. and K. Lidgren. Energy in Packaging and Waste. United Kingdom, 1983.

5. German Packaging Law Index

6. Raymond Communications Pamphlet, "Packaging Directive: New Countries Move on Producer Responsibility Laws." Recycling Laws International--Regulatory News for The Global Market Place, Vol. 1, No. 2, May 1995.

7. Field, Frank, et al. Automobile Recycling Policy: Findings and Recommendations. Center For Technology, Policy & Industrial Development, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994.

8. Field, Frank. The Recycling of Automobiles: Conflicting Environmental Objectives In A Competitive Marketplace. Materials Systems Laboratory, Center For Technology, Policy & Industrial Development, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, Massachuesetts, 1994.

9. Digital Computer Asset Recovery

10. T. Porada. "Materials Recovery: Asset Alchemy." Proceedings of the 1994 IEEE International Symposium on Electronics & the Environment, San Francisco, May 1994.

11. J. B. Legarth et. al. "Sustainability Issues in Circuit Board Recycling." Proceedings of the 1995 IEEE International Symposium on Electronics & the Environment, Orlando, May 1995.

12. J. C. Bullock. "Environmentally Sound Management of Electronic Scrap And the Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal." Proceedings of the 1995 IEEE International Symposium on Electronics & the Environment, Orlando, May 1995.

13. P. S. Dillon. "Mandated Electronic Equipment Recycling in Europe: Implication of Companies and U. S. Public Policy." Proceedings of the 1994 IEEE International Symposium on Electronics & the Environment, San Francisco, May 1994.

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