To date, 25 states and Washington, D.C., have electronics recycling laws, most of which are producer responsibility statutes. Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Minnesota are among those that have recently taken action to deal with fast-accumulating electronic waste.
But even though many of these states are moving the needle forward, some are running into barriers while working to implement these newly developed laws.
“A big challenge is designing consistent, cost-effective collection programs due to issues like falling commodity prices and increased cost to recycle cathode ray tubes,” says Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling. “The expenses add up, making it difficult for collectors, recyclers and manufacturers who are required to fund programs.”
Commonly, there is limited buy-in from all stakeholders. And there are program structure issues tied to determining ways that manufacturers, collectors and recyclers should interact. States are trying to amend legislation to address these barriers, but there has been no or little consensus on how to do it, says Linnell.
Nationwide, laws are not keeping pace with rapidly changing markets as product innovations occur.
“The market will continually fluctuate, but states are often locked into arbitrary [recycling service] pricing,” says Billy Johnson, chief lobbyist of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).
Today, processors are dealing with lighter devices that are assembled differently and harder to take apart and working with less volume of valuable materials. Because of this, processors are investing more time and effort for less money, comments Johnson.
The lower returns are mainly happening because manufacturers have paid into recycling programs based on pounds of products currently being sold versus pounds being recycled. This has created a gap between cost to recycle and monies coming in to support the programs, as end-of-life devices are heavier than new products marketed today.
Minnesota addressed this issue last year with a set manufacturers’ obligation for three program years of 25, 23 and 21 million pounds, bringing the obligation closer to what is actually collected and recycled. By the fourth year, manufacturers’ obligation is set by actual pounds collected in that state, based on a two-year average.
Illinois amended its law in early June to abandon a model based on pounds altogether and to focus on collection coverage.
As Oregon has done for several years, Illinois will establish a certain number of collection sites, working to ensure geographic coverage statewide.
“With this system, you are making sure programs collect from all areas, regardless of pounds of generated waste,” says Linnell. “That’s the concept now being built into some other states. But a challenge is dealing with collection and transportation costs in less dense areas.”
Meanwhile, the waste and recycling industry is beginning to consider a model similar to what the paint and mattress industries created. Manufacturers would fund the recycling program and consumers would help support the program by paying a fee when purchasing new products.
There have been behind-the-scenes discussions within the industry over this possibility, but no one has attempted or proposed it yet, says Linnell.
More recycling industry disruptions are occurring that could add complexity. A big one is that materials recover facilities’ roles are changing, but laws are not set up to consider this evolution.
As financial returns have diminished, recyclers are moving into more services. They are not just sending materials to shredders; they are disassembling, repairing, reusing and selling materials. Because of this shift, laws applying to recyclers won’t necessarily be applicable anymore, notes Johnson.
Furthermore, R2 certification will not be required in some states moving forward, meaning there will be less guarantee that data will be erased or that there will be an understanding of where scrap is processed downstream. When processors have not been through this certification, you run a higher risk that their business practices are not as environmentally sound, and you have less verification of their practices in general, says Bill Long of Charlotte, N.C.-based All Green Recycling.
Some regions are experimenting with ideas beyond creating recycling laws or manufacturer responsibility programs. For instance, some jurisdictions are counting weight in bins to reduce overall trash volume. The theory is that if residents are charged to throw materials away, they’re more likely to put them in recycle bins. This presents a likelihood that electronic devices would be recovered through improved sorting and separation, says Johnson.
Practices like these to change behaviors are part of the equation. Even as manufacturers, retailers and recyclers adopt programs ultimately, says Johnson, it is consumers who will either throw electronics in the trash or chose not to.