States Debate Recycled Electronic Junk
No Consensus on Recycled Electronic Junk
By Eric Kelderman
California, Maine and Maryland are taking diverse paths to dealing with the digital-age toxic waste posed by mountains of junked electronic equipment. But there is debate about whether a state-by-state approach is the best solution.
While legislatures in more than half the states have considered bills to deal with e-waste– from computer and television screens to video game systems and cell phones the three states have stepped out with laws to encourage recycling of the devices.
But their laws give varying responsibilities to manufacturers, retailers and state and local government. For now, there is no consensus on the best approach, and both the consumer electronics industry and environmentalists worry that a costly or ineffective patchwork of regulations will emerge as more states tackle the deluge of obsolete digital gadgets.
Already, lawmakers in the Northeast and Midwest are studying regional solutions to coordinate their recycling efforts, hoping to make the process both more cost-effective for business and more convenient for consumers.
Computers and television screens can contain several hazardous materials, such as lead, mercury and fire-retardant plastics. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1 percent to 4 percent of solid waste is electronic equipment, but the amount is increasing at three times the rate of the other types of garbage. Several states already ban televisions and computer screens from their landfills.
In July, Maryland started charging manufacturers a flat $5,000 annual fee to help counties collect and recycle computer screens. The Maryland Department of the Environment estimates the program will collect $500,000 to $750,000 a year to be divided among the state’s 24 counties and Baltimore. After the first year, companies can reduce their fee to $500 if they offer to take back their computer screens for recycling.
The measure passed both houses of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly with only one opposing vote and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. In addition, the initiative got wide support from a variety of business and environmental groups, said Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D), one of the bill’s sponsors.
But critics of the Maryland program say that the fee is too small to mount an effective recycling program and doesn’t encourage manufacturers to make environmentally friendly computers.
“If I’m Sony, I’ll pay you $5,000 just to get away from me,” said New York state Sen. Carl L. Marcellino (R), co-chairman of the Legislature’s Environmental Conservation Committee.
Kara Reeve, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Clean Water Action, said the Maryland law puts the onus on counties to recycle and will cost taxpayers if too little money is collected. And the pilot program, which expires in 2010, does not cover televisions, which also contain lead and other toxic materials.
Reeve’s group supports Maine’s 2004 law, which takes effect in January and requires manufacturers to take back their own computer monitors and electronic components sold in the state.
“We definitely favor the Maine approach, because it makes manufacturers responsible for their own products,” Reeve said. At the same time, it gives companies an incentive to make their devices with fewer toxic materials and design them to be easily recycled, she said.
Similar bills are under consideration in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Reeve said.
Some manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard, already have launched their own programs to collect and recycle their products, said Parker Brugge, environmental counsel for the Consumer Electronics Association. But many computer and television makers are concerned about extra costs to recycle so-called “orphaned” products from companies that have gone out of business, Brugge said. This may become an especially big problem for television companies, because people may keep their TVs up to 15 years, he said.
California, which passed the first “e-cycling” law in 2003, charges consumers a fee of $6 to $10 for each new computer or television to pay for electronic recycling efforts in the state. The money goes to a state fund that pays recyclers for their efforts — if they can certify that the products were purchased in the state.
“There are strenuous reporting requirements for recyclers,” Brugge explained.
Marc Pearl, executive director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, said store owners are opposed to the California approach because the extra fee may cause more people to buy their computers and televisions online.
Marcellino, the New York legislator, said a uniform approach to the problem would be more effective and business-friendly. “Different measures drive manufacturers crazy,” he said.
But finding common ground isn’t easy, said Marcellino, who also is co-chairman of a committee of state officials struggling to write a model bill that lawmakers can copy across a 10-state region.
A draft of that proposed bill, which could change in coming weeks, would charge manufacturers a quarterly fee for every electronic device sold in the state, based on numbers reported by retailers.
Environmental officials from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin also are working on a similar draft proposal, said Lucy Doroshko, a recycling specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.