October 2, 2009
States Take E-Waste Recycling Into Their Own Hands
With Congress dragging its heels on recycling issues, more and more states are taking things into their own hands to cut back on the amount of electronic equipment being tossed, as it has become the fastest growing type of waste.
Currently laws have been passed in nineteen states requiring that old electronics be recycled.
There are thirteen other states considering laws as well, but as these laws go into effect, the electronics industry is claiming that the measures are a hard-to-follow "patchwork."
The Consumer Electronics Association and the Information Technology Industry Council are both suing New York City over its recycling law, which will require that electronics manufacturers offer free collection of electronics over 15 pounds.
The two trade groups are fighting the law that will cost their member companies over $200 million every year in detailed paper trails documenting their recycling.
The Consumer Electronics Association's vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability, Parker Brugge, said the states' laws are oppressive for manufacturers that must draft state-specific recycling plans. His group would rather have a national e-waste law that sets a uniform policy that would have companies, consumers and local governments share the responsibility of recycling.
According to Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics Takeback Coalition, a group that promotes e-waste recycling, what manufacturers really want is a nation-wide policy that would not be as stringent as the state laws.
"They talk about how much they want a federal bill, but what they want is a weak federal bill. They don't want to have to do what the state laws are making them do," she said.
Many e-waste bills have been presented to Congress over the years, but none were passed and nothing has ever been done about it.
The House authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to award grants promoting e-waste recycling in April, but the Senate has yet to weigh in on it.
While the bill sits inactive, e-waste continues to pile up. Americans disposed of 2.25 million tons of TVs, computers, cell phones, fax machines, printers and scanners in 2007. That's more than twice the amount generated in 1999, according to the EPA.
Less than one-fifth of e-waste gets recycled, meaning that copper, silver, gold and other precious metals are left inside to be salvaged and resold. The toxic leftovers, like TVs containing lead and monitors with cathode-ray tubes, and rechargeable batteries that have cadmium are then scrapped in landfills.
The EPA claims that the strict landfill regulations prevent those toxic materials from posing significant risks to the nation's groundwater. However, millions of tons of e-waste are shipped to developing nations every year, where scrap yards crush or burn components, exposing workers to hazardous fumes.
The majority of state e-waste measures require electronics manufacturers to collect and recycle their discarded products at little or no cost to consumers, who are increasingly being blocked from putting electronics on the side of the road with trash for regular pickups.
There are even some laws that dictate the level of convenience that must be provided for people to get rid of their old electronics, along with collection goals that some companies would be required to meet.
The laws did generally allow companies to decide how to reach such goals, like by staging periodic collection events, or counting products collected by their own recycling programs or ones run by municipalities and nonprofits.
Roughly half the states make electronics manufacturers take care of not only their own products but also various amounts of "orphan" devices that consumers drop off, said Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling.
California was the only state that called for consumers to pay upfront for e-waste recycling. Under its law, consumers have to pay between $8 and $25 above the price of TVs, computer monitors, laptop computers and portable DVD players.
California paid $96 million that they collected from that fee to recyclers and collectors who handled about 218 million pounds of old electronics last year, said Chris Peck, spokesman for the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
Indiana is the latest state to pass an e-waste law. Passed in April, it requires makers of TVs, monitors, and laptops to recycle 60 percent of the weight of the products that they sell in their state.
Starting next year, companies will be made to register with the state, pay yearly fees and file reports detailing the devices they have sold and how much e-waste they put through recycling programs. If they fail to meet the 60 percent goal, the companies will be faced with fines.
A similar 2007 law in Minnesota led to about 34 million pounds of electronics, averaging 6.5 pounds per resident, being collected in its first year, said Garth Hickle, the product stewardship team leader for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
A 2007 collection event at the Mall of America had to close down because of the overwhelming amount of people bringing in 1 million pounds of electronics that had been just sitting around their homes.
"Some people waited in line for two hours to drop off material," Hickle said. "That just shows you that if the collection options are there, people are ready to get rid of this stuff."
On the Net:
- Consumer Electronics Association
- Information Technology Industry Council
- Electronics Takeback Coalition
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Center for Electronics Recycling
- Minnesota Pollution Control Agency