Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise

A lull in e-waste lawmaking conceals other electronics recycling activity.

For several years we have seen a steady increase in the number of states with laws on electronics recycling. However, we may have now have hit a plateau since in 2011 and so far in 2012 only one new state has been added to the list.

Half of the states have electronics recycling program laws, meaning that the law establishes a program or set of programs, for which the responsibility is almost always assigned to the manufacturer. A handful of other states have also taken action to ban certain electronic devices from landfill disposal in their state without an overall program or set of programs.

This does not mean, however, that there is a lack of interest in or decreasing need for electronics recycling programs. Some activity has shifted to manufacturer and retailer voluntary programs as well as nascent federal activities that are providing expanded options for electronics recycling efforts apart from the state mandates. States with laws already in effect have also been active by making modifications to existing requirements and working on efforts to harmonize common elements with other states.

First, let’s review the situation among the 25 state program laws for electronics recycling. Taken together, these laws cover two-thirds of the U.S. population. Beginning in January 2012, all programs required by the laws were in effect. In all but California, which is funded by an advance recycling fee, manufacturers are responsible for establishing and funding electronics recycling programs. Typical electronics covered by these programs include desktop computers, laptop computers, computer monitors, printers and televisions. However not all of these five product types are covered in every state, and some states such as Illinois and New York have incorporated broad sets of 14 different product types that can be recycled under their programs.

It is also important to note that these regulated programs are not open to all; in many states the programs established by the law only are required to accept e-waste from households. Other states allow entities such as small businesses and schools to participate, while only a couple programs are open to all organizations no matter their size.

25 States, Five Approaches

There are five basic structures under which the state programs can be grouped. First is the advanced recycling fee model that is only found in California, the first state to pass an electronics recycling program law in 2003. Under this structure, sellers of covered electronics add a fee of $6 to $10 to the price of the product and remit the fee to the state. Recyclers can then bill the state for the costs of collecting and recycling covered devices that are returned by in-state residents and organizations.

The second structure is recycler authorization for manufacturer funding. The state approves a set of recyclers that are allowed to bill their approved rates to manufacturers for collected pounds based upon the returns or market share of the manufacturer. This approach is limited to two states, Connecticut and Maine.

Under the third approach, default or opt-out, recyclers are not directly approved by the state, but rather work under a default program for manufacturers or any programs that “opt-out” and decide to work with their own network of collectors and recyclers. There are currently four states with this model: Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

There is some overlap in the final two program structures due to differing approaches taken for (and at one time advocated by) television and information technology (IT) equipment manufacturers. Together, they also represent the greatest number of states. The fourth structure involves the setting of individual pound targets for each manufacturer covered by the law based on its market share. In some cases the actual pounds sold in a given year is the basis for the collection target for the manufacturer, and in other cases divides a statewide collection target proportionally among the manufacturers based on their market share.

The fifth structure encompasses a limited take-back program approach whereby manufacturers are required to file plans (in most cases to a state agency) describing their take-back program and report annually on the results. Some programs involve annual fees that are reduced for the manufacturer based on the presence or extensiveness of its take-back program. None of the state laws under this structure require manufacturers to take more than their own brand of covered devices or include mandatory collection targets.

Types of Electronics Recycling Program Laws (States in parentheses fall into more than one category.):

1. Advanced Recycling Fee

  • CA

2. Default and opt-out

  • OR, RI, VT, WA

3. Recycler approval, then bill manufacturer, return and market share

  • CT, ME

4. Pounds sold/share

  • IL, IN, (MI), MN, (NC), NJ, NY, (SC), WI

5. Limited take-back programs

  • MD, (MI), MO, (NC), OK, (SC), TX, UT, VA, WV

There are three states, and potentially one more, that also ban the recycling of electronic devices but are not considered to be one of the 25 states with program laws. These are Arkansas, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Colorado is also on the verge of joining this group if a bill on the Governor’s desk is signed.

This does not include states where local governments have the authority and have decided to ban electronics disposal within their jurisdiction. These bans have proved controversial in some cases, including one state where a group has introduced legislation to repeal it, but states agencies have generally not taken enforcement efforts out on consumers, instead focusing first on education. There are also several states with program laws that decided not to implement a disposal ban when enacting a program, bringing the total to 19 (not including Colorado).

So Who’s Left?

Some within the electronics recycling community used to regularly speculate as to when we would have 50 different state laws. However, the lull in new states adding program laws for the past two years has dampened these expectations. In reality, it was unlikely we would ever reach 50 states with electronics recycling program laws as some states would not be likely candidates to pass these bills for various political and other reasons.

Looking at the states and regions that are left on the map, it appears that major sections of the country that aren’t covered include the Southeast (below the Carolinas), the Mountain West, the Southwest, and a handful of states in the Midwest and Northeast. Of these, the states with the most likely prospects for adding electronics recycling program legislation in the next year or two are Massachusetts and New Hampshire as they are completely surrounded by other states in the region with program laws, and they have already demonstrated a willingness to address electronics recycling through legislated or regulated landfill bans. Other states not in orange have seen legislation introduced in 2011 or 2012, including Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada and Ohio.

Tinkering and Harmonization

The issue of electronics recycling is still a hot topic in state legislatures as state programs evolve and learn from their experiences. Many times, changes in the existing laws are needed to achieve better program performance or allow more flexibility.

In 2011, Illinois dramatically altered the structure of manufacturer targets and expanded the scope of products covered. Maine also expanded its law to cover more entities than just households. In addition to tinkering, state programs are working to find joint solutions to common challenges through the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC). ERCC works with state agencies and impacted stakeholders to identify technical challenges that could be solved through coordinated activity, and has been able to reduce the burden on their individual resources and make the implementation of electronics recycling laws more of a collaborative effort.

The World Beyond State Laws

The electronics recycling community is seeing a rise in the importance of two other types of activity beyond regulated state programs. First, there has been a marked increase in the rollout of voluntary programs from electronics manufacturers and retailers. Several voluntary programs now exist that include a network of drop-off locations across the country, including at many government, non-profit and retailer sites.

In April of 2011, the Consumer Electronics Association announced its eCycling Leadership Initiative that includes “Billion-Pound Challenge” industry participants. This represents an attempt to provide an overall framework to the varied manufacturer programs and introduces a public yardstick by which they can measure progress. Many of the manufacturer programs provide collection opportunities in states that have not passed e-waste legislation while at the same time fulfilling requirements in mandated states.

The federal government is also stepping up activity on electronics recycling as a result of National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship released in July of last year. Many of the projects in that report, which was the result of an Interagency Task Force created by an Executive Order in November 2010, focused on actions that could be taken by federal government agencies to increase federal recycling programs. The report also highlighted actions to promote the use of recyclers certified to one of two standards now available that attempt to ensure environmentally sound management of used electronics. Finally, it included provisions for gathering better data on e-waste exports and working with voluntary industry programs in public/private partnerships.

These types of activities may have just as great if not greater impact than the state laws themselves. Federal government agencies and manufacturers are significant customers for electronics recyclers and can demand high performance from their vendors as well as shape national infrastructure for electronics recycling. However, all programs will be needed and should be evaluated with consistent performance measures to ensure that used electronics are collected as efficiently as possible while adhering to strict environmental management practices.

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

Interested in learning more about trends in e-waste regulation and recycling? Check out the “E-fficient E-Recycling” session, hosted by Jason Linnell, at WasteExpo 2012 in Las Vegas. The session, which is part of the Recycling Commodities Track, will be held Tuesday, May 1, from 3:15 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

For complete information on the 2012 WasteExpo lineup, visit

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