States experiment with e-waste financing
So far, only three states — California, Maine and Maryland — have enacted legislation to finance the recycling and reuse of electronic waste, better known as e-waste. Illustrating the complexity of the issue, the three states have developed three different solutions. Aside from debating which approach will prove most effective, interested parties also are discussing who should take the lead in crafting federal legislation and programs.
E-waste — which includes televisions, computers and cell phones — often contains elements, such as lead, cadmium and mercury, that can be harmful to humans. With nearly 100 million computers, monitors and televisions becoming obsolete every year, e-waste makes up an estimated 1 percent of waste going into landfills, a percentage that is increasing quickly. While some people argue that the materials have the potential to leach from landfills, contrary evidence exists. In either case, collected e-waste sometimes is sent for disposal to other countries with less-stringent landfill regulations, giving reason for concern.
In November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on the role the federal government should take in the recycling and reuse of e-waste. The report cites economic factors, such as the cost consumers pay to drop off used electronics at recycling sites and the lack of a financing system as reasons national laws are needed. It also mentions the absence of regulations that “prevent the exportation of used electronics to countries where disassembly takes place at far lower costs, but where disassembly practices threaten human health and the environment.” As a result, GAO suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take the lead in federal legislation.
The EPA — opposed to being responsible for such action — responded with a letter stating, “As GAO knows, there is no consensus among manufacturers about what the best financing solution is to enable widespread electronics recycling, even though manufacturers and many other stakeholders have expressed the view that a national solution is better than a patchwork of state solutions.”
As the nation waits for direction from the federal government, dozens of states are considering ways to deal with e-waste and have the benefit of observing states that recently have adopted regulations. “Clearly, a federal approach is preferable,” says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association. “But in California and Maine, we have the opportunity to see if either of those programs works out.”
Last year, California began charging customers $6 to $10 when purchasing certain electronics, using the money to reimburse recyclers and collectors. The potential problem, Miller says, is that “California’s plan requires a large bureaucracy to make sure the money gets spent properly.”
Shifting responsibility away from consumers, Maine’s law, which takes effect this month, requires manufacturers to finance and implement a plan for recycling residential televisions and computer monitors. It also makes them pay to transport the electronics when e-waste loads reach 16,000 pounds. Beginning in July, the state will ban television and computer disposal, which makes municipalities responsible for providing recycling options.
Maryland, meanwhile, charges a flat fee of $5,000 per year to manufacturers that sell more than 1,000 computers annually in the state. Manufacturers can reduce that fee to $500 if they establish recycling programs that are free to consumers. The money funds local e-waste collection programs.
As the state programs develop, national leaders can treat them as test sites for the various approaches available for financing recycling and reuse programs.
Counting on e-waste
Approximately 62 percent of households had computers in 2003 versus 37 percent six years earlier.
1 metric ton of computer scrap contains more gold than 17 tons of ore.
In 2003, 70 million computers became obsolete, but only an estimated 7 million were recycled.
EPA has spent about $2 million on programs to encourage e-waste recycling and reuse.
SOURCE: Government Accountability Office, “Electronic Waste: Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse,” November 2005.