The E-Waste Disconnect

States continue to implement differing e-waste laws but a federal electronics recycling program doesn't appear to be on the immediate horizon.

Compared to previous years, 2009 was a relatively quiet one when it came to states passing new electronics recycling legislation. However, several states began implementation of their e-waste recycling programs. Other state programs kicked in at the start of 2010, and by the end of this year, all 20 current state e-waste laws will have been implemented, barring any legislative or regulatory delays. Meanwhile, at the federal level, Congress in 2009 took its first concrete action to address the challenge of electronics recycling, but the bill does not directly address the patchwork of state regulation. With all of this activity, there are a number of notable trends in the policy landscape and things to keep an eye out for as the year progresses.

To recap, we now have one advanced recycling fee and 19 differing forms of producer responsibility among the state laws that provide some sort of financing for e-waste recycling programs. California was the first state to pass such a law, but is the only state with a fee charged to the consumer at the time of sale. The producer responsibility laws adopted by other states are designed to shift the costs of recycling to the manufacturers or producers. These laws require various registration, reporting and payment obligations of electronics manufacturers, and offer varying levels of access to recycling opportunities to residents of the states. Some require manufacturers to set up their own take-back programs but don't set recycling goals, and some dictate that manufacturers pay for recycling based on the volume of their brands that are recycled. There has been a trend in the newer laws to require that manufacturers pay recycling fees based on "market share," or how many of their products are sold.

What's New

Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin passed e-waste laws in late 2008 and 2009 that follow roughly the same model but have some key differences as well. The Michigan law was signed at the very end of 2008 and took effect last October. It requires manufacturers of computers and televisions to submit a plan to the state describing their takeback program. In this sense, it is similar to laws in Texas and six other states.

However, unlike Indiana and Wisconsin's laws, Michigan's law established no mandatory collection goals. Instead, manufacturers are asked to voluntarily collect an amount equaling 60 percent of the weight of the products they sell in the state; however, that is not a requirement. This is balanced by the fact that takeback programs are required to be "convenient." One interesting aspect to the Michigan law is the fact that recyclers, like manufacturers, are required to register with the state and pay an annual registration fee. This kind of requirement was not common in the first dozen state e-waste laws.

Indiana, on the other hand, does require manufacturers to meet a minimum collection goal of 60 percent of the weight of products sold in the state. However, manufacturers have almost two years to meet this initial goal before it becomes an annual mandatory minimum. This follows the model of the Minnesota law passed in 2007, under which manufacturers recycle a set number of pounds based on their sales weight of video display devices, but can count a larger array of products (such as computers, DVD players and printers) towards meeting that goal. Under the Indiana law, manufacturers are not required to provide "convenient" collection locations, but they are given an incentive to collect in rural areas. Manufacturers were allowed to begin collecting toward the first annual goal almost immediately after the law was passed in July 2009. Unlike Minnesota, where the collection percentage increased to 80 percent after the first year, the Indiana target stays at 60 percent of sales weight indefinitely.

The Wisconsin e-waste law also follows the rough model of requiring manufacturers to collect a defined percentage of their sales weight in a given year. But, Wisconsin's legislature added desktop computer and printer manufacturers to the list of covered producers, and the collection goal is 80 percent. The Wisconsin program began at the start of 2010.

What Do We Know?

Good data is hard to come by when evaluating the relative success and failure of the state electronics recycling programs. That's due to the fact that only half of the programs only have been operating for a year or more. That being said, the early results, at least in terms of collection volumes, are interesting to examine and compare as long as they are put in context. Figure 1 outlines the most recent results in pounds collected per capita among the state programs, but also shows key differences in terms of products collected and types of customers/entities whose devices are counted in these totals. Unless all columns show the exact same set of conditions, such as identical product scope and covered entities, the final per capita results should be not compared as absolute numbers. A recent article in Waste Age ("Sparking Green Jobs," January 2010 issue) failed to note many of the key differences in population and product scope when comparing the total volume collected in California versus other states.

As shown in the table, there is a stark difference between the collection results under the Texas and Virginia programs, as compared to the newer systems in Washington, Oregon and Minnesota. Even after considering that the Texas and Virginia programs might collect roughly 50 to 60 percent more volume if TVs were included and small businesses were allowed access to the system, the per capita rates still are an order of magnitude smaller.

At the Federal Level

In 2009, electronics recycling took a major step forward at the federal level as the House of Representatives adopted a bill that addresses the issue. However, this bill, (H.R. 1580) is focused on the research and development of recycling technologies rather than addressing the patchwork of regulatory programs. Unlike many other aspects of the electronics recycling issue, this bill has been non-controversial, and is expected to pass the Senate. Another bill on export restrictions for used electronics has been introduced but has not yet received a hearing due to strongly differing views on its merits and approach from environmental groups and the recycling industry.

Despite the fact that a federal e-waste solution is unlikely in the immediate future, there are still positive efforts underway to address the challenges posed by the myriad state approaches. For one, the National Center for Electronics Recycling and the Northeast Recycling Council have launched the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC) to serve as a forum for stakeholder input and for state agencies to encourage consistency in the implementation of their e-waste laws. Secondly, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been methodically researching the challenges presented by the patchwork of state programs and is expected to make constructive recommendations to Congress before the end of the year.

With the momentum gained by these efforts, as well as the ongoing evaluation of state laws, 2011 could prove to be the year when all stakeholders get a real sense of how e-waste recycling laws should be harmonized.

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Jason Linnell is the executive director of the Parkersburg, W.Va-based National Center for Electronics Recycling.

Want to Know More?

Jason Linnell will speak at the "E-Recycling Trends in the States" session at WasteExpo on Monday, May 3. The session, which is part of the Recycling Track, will run from 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.

State Popu-
lation (Census 2008)
Products Covered Entities Covered Lb/
capita 2008
capita 2009
Maine 1,316,456 TVs, computer monitors, laptops Households only 4.0 (6)*
Minnesota 5,220,393 TVs, computer monitors, laptops, desktops, printers, computers, peripherals, facsimile machines, DVD players, video cassette recorders, Households only 6.3 (Jul 07-Jun 08) 5.8 (Jul 08-Jun 09)
Oregon 3,790,060 TVs, computer monitors, laptops, desktops Oregon households, small business (10), non-profit (10), or any person giving 7 or fewer covered devices to a collector at any one time. N/A 5.0
Texas 24,326,974 Computer monitors, laptops, desktops "consumers" only, defined as those who use computer equipment for home or home business use N/A 0.50 (Sep 08-Dec 09)
Virginia 7,769,089 Computer monitors, laptops, desktops "consumers" only, defined as those who use computer equipment for home or home business use N/A 0.97**
Washington 6,549,224 TVs, computer monitors, laptops, desktops Households, small governments, small businesses, school district and charities only. N/A 5.9
*This is a preliminary estimate included in the Maine report to the legislature released on 1/15/2010:
** Annualized from reported number of 3,782,500 pounds (1,891.25 tons) for July 1 - Dec. 31, 2009