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August 2004

Picture This - Disposable Cameras Show a Recycling Rate of 75 Percent

They may go by many names – “disposable, single use” or even “throw away,” but one-time-use cameras of today are anything but disposed of. This popular consumer item has become an icon of the disposable age we live in. A wide variety of brands and types are available everywhere, and contrary to what their name suggests, they aren’t thrown away when dropped off for processing. A recovery rate of more than 70% puts one-time-use cameras ahead of the venerable aluminum beverage can as the planet’s most recycled consumer product.

Eastman Kodak is one of the most recognized brand names in the world. Since their recycling program for one-time-use cameras began in 1990, Kodak has recycled nearly half a billion of them - including well over 100 million units in 2003 alone. This equates to more than 50,000 tons of waste diverted from landfills in the past 14 years. That figure does not include units recycled by Fuji, Agfa, Konica and other manufacturers of similar “name brand” products.

At Kodak, the recycling program for one-time-use cameras has been at the heart of the company’s product stewardship mission and design-for-the-environment initiatives. Regardless of how it’s measured, their achievement in recycling is unmatched. No other single product is recycled more than the one-time-use camera.

To put things in perspective, the recycling rate in the U.S. for the Kodak line of one-time-use cameras is 75 percent – significantly greater than aluminum beverage containers (63%), glass beverage bottles (33%), steel food cans (58%) and even corrugated cartons (73%). Industry-wide, other manufacturers report similar figures.

On a global basis, the recovery and recycling rate for one-time-use cameras is over 60 percent - and this figure has been steadily improving year after year. Considering the shear numbers involved, the task of recycling them is formidable.

The recovery process
When a one-time-use camera is surrendered for processing, consumers drop them off at the photo-finishing specialist of their choice. There, the film inside is removed and developed, recovering silver from the photo-sensitive emulsion. Photographic film has been an important source of silver recovery for decades, accounting for millions of dollars worth of recycled silver annually.

Most manufacturers such as Kodak, Fuji and Agfa offer photo-finishing labs a comprehensive silver management service that includes refining, recovery, and recycling. A variety of silver-bearing materials are included such as silver flake from electrolytic recovery units, silver-rich sludges and certain types of processed and unprocessed films. The silver recovery and recycling programs ensure that retail-finishing labs manage this important resource and comply with state and federal regulations governing the safe disposal and handling of the material. The programs also enable retailers to save money over collecting and disposing of recoverable silver on their own.

In addition to the silver, other valuable non-ferrous metals, along with some plastics, are recovered and recycled through a similar model common to most manufacturers.

Doug Strong is the worldwide manager for Kodak’s one-time-use camera recycling program. According to Mr. Strong, “Empty one-time-use camera bodies accumulate quickly at the retail level. Camera manufacturers provide their retail customers with shipping containers and prepay the freight to ship the empty bodies to sorting centers across the country. The sorting centers – often under independent contract with the manufacturer – sort the cameras according to brand. Swap agreements between the different makers ensure that all products are returned to their manufacturer, and nothing is landfilled,” he said. “There is no cash involved between the respective manufacturers. This arrangement reflects each parties’ commitment to the recovery and recycling of all resources involved,” he added.

One-time-use camera manufacturers operate recycling centers to deal with the huge numbers of recovered cameras. Doug Strong continues, “Our main recycling center is in Rochester, New York. There, each unit is disassembled and every component is inspected. Several of the plastic parts are ground into pellets used in the manufacture of new camera body parts or other similar plastic products. Components such as circuitry boards – rich in non-ferrous and precious metals – are thoroughly tested and must meet established quality standards in order to be reused. The recycled camera parts are held to the same standards of performance and quality as new product, so there is no difference between a recycled one-time-use camera and a brand new one of the same model. We used to track the number of times circuit boards were recycled. But since the quality standards are the same, that information is no longer relevant,” he added.

Recycled cameras are then loaded with fresh film, labeled, packaged and sold to retailers again. By weight, more than 90 percent of every Kodak single-use camera is recycled, and the average Kodak one-time-use camera body is recycled more than three times.

Designed for recycling
Fuji is no stranger to recycling of one-time-use cameras either. The global leader in consumer imaging was involved in recycling them from the start. Girish Menon, national manager of environmental and safety systems for Fuji Film USA, Inc., explains, “The one-time-use camera market is extremely competitive, and each manufacturer is driven to control costs. Keeping unnecessary expense out of the recycling process begins with the design of the camera itself. Every component is engineered to meet specific design and performance criteria with recycling in mind. With all of the precious metals involved, the circuitry of the camera – particularly if it is equipped with a flash unit – is the most valuable part. Recycling the electronic components is what makes the entire process economically feasible. We are aware of circuit boards being recycled as many as 10 times,” he said.

To understand where specific design advantages may be realized, camera manufacturers often assign engineers to spend time in the field, studying how cameras are used and how they are processed for recycling. As a result, the main body of the camera is made from easily recyclable plastic. Even simple items such as operating instructions are printed on thin, recyclable polystyrene panels, avoiding the need to remove decals. Several patents have been awarded on the processes involving labeling of one-time-use cameras.

While each unit accounts for a relatively small amount of non-ferrous and precious metals, due to the large numbers involved, the recycling of one-time-use cameras saves significant quantities of copper, tin, aluminum, stainless steel, nickel, zinc and lead. Estimates are that thousands of tons of each of these non-ferrous metals have been recycled by manufacturers of one-time-use cameras since the inception of the product category.

No material recovered from the recycling of one-time-use cameras is disposed of in landfills. Even paper from the packaging of the camera is recycled at separate facilities for that purpose.

Today, all makers of one-time-use cameras remain dedicated to both the community, as well as the environment. The recycling success of this product may serve as an effective model for other such initiatives in the future.

According to Kodak, more than a billion one-time-use cameras have been recycled industry-wide since 1990.

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