Circular File: Sanitation Prognostication

Fearless forecasts for the new legislative year.

E-waste recycling and climate change are the two solid waste and recycling issues most likely to receive the attention of state and federal legislators in the coming year. Some states already have passed legislation in these two areas and more will follow this year. Congress will be challenged to pass national legislation to reconcile inconsistent state laws.

Seventeen states now have e-waste recycling laws. With one exception, all of them are varieties of "producer responsibility" laws. Because electronic product manufacturers and retailers prefer the convenience and economic efficiencies of one national law, they will press Congress to resolve this issue. Congress, however, faces two main obstacles. The first is its reluctance to do anything until product manufacturers, retailers and environmental groups agree on how to fund e-waste recycling. Congress works most efficiently when presented with a solution supported by key actors in an issue. As of this writing, that solution doesn't exist.

The other obstacle is reconciling the different state laws while preserving California's unique advanced recycling fee law. In California, consumers pay a recycling fee when they buy electronics products subject to the recycling law. Local governments like the fee because it guarantees that e-waste recycling is not an unfunded mandate. Unfortunately, some of the state producer responsibility laws saddle local governments with collection costs.

Why does California matter? Because the speaker of the House and the chairs of the House and Senate committees responsible for e-waste recycling legislation all hail from the Golden State. They will try to protect their constituents.

Unless these obstacles can be overcome, Congress is more likely to try to prevent the export of e-waste to overseas "recycling" facilities. Ironically, these facilities, many of which have been exposed as environmental horror shows, wouldn't exist if environmental groups hadn't pressed for disposal bans without first ensuring that a recycling infrastructure existed.

Climate change legislation also will see major congressional and state interest. California lead the way when it passed AB 32 in 2006. That law established goals for lowering the state's greenhouse gas emissions. In December, state regulators approved a comprehensive plan to meet those goals and also approved regulations cracking down on diesel fuel emissions. Solid waste and recycling are affected in numerous ways, from controls on landfill gas emissions to pressure for increased recycling to the need to shift away from diesel-powered collection trucks.

Other states are participating in regional consortiums such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a coalition of 10 Northeastern states that have created a "mandatory market-based" (now there's an oxymoron!) program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, many states established climate change commissions, whose reports will be used to craft legislation this year.

As for Congress, it will hold hearings, issue papers and might, in 2010, even enact a climate change law. Consensus will be hard to achieve, especially when Congress is under pressure not to pass legislation that could have a negative impact on the economy.

Another climate change-related issue for 2009 involves the congressional mandate that EPA require reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. At least eight states currently require this reporting. Although EPA is probably a year away from meeting the Congressional obligation, one thing is certain. Solid waste managers will soon have a new form to fill out. Let's just hope it's easier to complete than a 1040!

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Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].