The E-Waste Patchwork

In the absence of a federal electronics recycling program, states are passing a variety of laws to divert the products from landfills.

For the last several years, policymakers at the state level have been engaged in fierce debates over the best approach to handling the challenge of recycling used electronics (e-waste). In many cases, these debates have led to the passage of legislation that provides some level of funding for a mandatory recycling program. In fact, 18 states as well as New York City have some kind of e-waste law in place, which equates to 53 percent of the U.S. population.

However, no two states have identical programs. So far in 2009, 12 additional states have introduced e-waste recycling legislation. If passed, an already challenging landscape will become even more complicated for recyclers, haulers, manufacturers and other stakeholders.

There are several different models of state electronic recycling systems. These models have various registration, reporting and payment requirements for electronics manufacturers, and offer a variety of recycling opportunities to residents. Some require manufacturers to set up their own take-back programs but don't set recycling goals. Some dictate that manufacturers of certain electronics pay for recycling based on the amount of their products returned for recycling, and yet others require that manufacturers pay based on how much they sell.

California, the first state to enact e-waste legislation, funds its e-waste recycling program through an advanced recycling fee (ARF), which is paid by the consumer at the time of sale. The fees were instituted in 2005 at three levels — $6, $8 or $10 based on the screen size of the TV or computer monitor — but have since increased to $8, $16 and $25.

The revenue generated by the ARF goes into a state fund, which is then used to pay qualified collectors and processors to recycle e-waste from both California businesses and households. Thus far, California is the only state that has adopted this model. In terms of collection volumes, the California program has been a success — since the program started, well over 600 million pounds of covered electronics have been collected and recycled, which equates to 5.9 pounds per capita for 2008.

The other states with e-waste laws passed varying forms of a producer responsibility law. These laws are designed to shift the costs of recycling to the manufacturers and are sometimes described as a “win-win-win” situation for the environment and consumers.

For one, recycling is made available to consumers when it wasn't before. Secondly, taxpayers do not bear the burden of recycling costs. Finally, if manufacturers are made financially responsible for the recycling costs, it is theorized that they will be incentivized to design easier-to-recycle, less toxic products. All of this assumes that the policy implementers have the ability and resources to enforce the obligations of manufacturers, and that the policy framework has set the correct incentives.

The first state to establish a producer responsibility law was Maine, which passed legislation in 2004 that covers TVs, computer monitors and laptop computers. Under Maine's approach, the funding for the recycling system is shared between product manufacturers and local governments. Cities and counties collect the products from households and deliver them to a state-approved “consolidator.” The consolidators count the number of items from each manufacturer, and then send each manufacturer a bill for its devices plus an additional amount for orphan products (items for which no manufacturer can be identified or held responsible). In 2008, the Maine program collected four pounds per capita.

Connecticut also follows the basic model of having manufacturers pay for their material, except that desktop computers are covered by the program, and television manufacturers pay for the recycling costs of TVs based on their individual market share percentages. The Connecticut law will become effective in late 2009.

Maryland's law covers desktop computers, laptops, computer monitors and televisions. Under the program, manufacturers of these products must register with the state and pay an annual $5,000 fee. If the manufacturer implements a take-back program, the fee is reduced to $500 after the first year. West Virginia passed an almost identical law in 2008 and is in the first year of its program.

Washington, Oregon and Rhode Island require manufacturers to participate in a plan — either their own or the state's default plan — to manage their recycling obligations.

While states such as Maine, Washington and Oregon base each manufacturer's recycling obligation on the amount of their products that are returned, other states have adopted a model that is more dependent on market share. For example, the Minnesota law, which was adopted in 2007, requires manufacturers of video display devices to recycle an amount equivalent to a percentage of the total weight of material they sell. For the first year, manufacturers had to recycle an amount equal to 60 percent of the pounds of electronics they sold, and that target increases to 80 percent in subsequent years. Illinois and New York City also follow variations of this model.

A final producer responsibility model focuses primarily on information technology (IT) equipment. This type of law emerged in 2007 in Texas and has now been copied in Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, and, to a certain extent, Hawaii. Under this approach, IT manufacturers are required to submit a recovery plan in the state and offer some type of free recycling option to households for their branded products. The options for implementing the recovery plan are extremely flexible, and manufacturers do not have to meet any collection or recovery targets, or pay registration fees.

Two final states have producer responsibility laws that do not fall under any of the above models, and may be further refined before they are fully implemented in 2011. Under New Jersey's law, there are separate requirements for television and IT equipment manufacturers, but both groups must submit collection plans to the state. In North Carolina, manufacturers are required to fund the recycling costs of products received from collectors, and there are also separate requirements for TV and IT producers.

Federal Program?

Despite the inconsistencies of the state programs, there are no immediate prospects for a federal program to take their place. Congress looks set to enact a bill (H.R. 1580) that would address electronics recycling for the first time, but its focus is on research and development of recycling technologies. At press time, this bill had passed the House and was being considered by the Senate.

With the proliferation of state programs and no immediate prospect of a national law, various stakeholders as well as administrators of state e-waste recycling programs are looking at ways they can reduce duplication of efforts. Through the efforts of the NCER, state administrators meet regularly to discuss issues of concern and to share information of common interest.

As more e-waste laws are introduced into state legislatures, harmonizing common elements may become even more of a necessity, with costs to run state-level e-waste programs soaring to an all-time high and compliance for manufacturers proving to be a challenge. States seem to be learning from the experiences of other states that have gone before them. Some see this patchwork of state approaches as the “laboratory” where the best approaches will be shown through data and analysis. The risk, however, is that those running these experiments will be so entrenched in their programs by the time the evidence is in that they will be reluctant to change their ways even if the data clearly show they have failed.

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

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Want to Know More?

Jason Linnell will speak at the “E-Waste: News Laws, New Programs” session at WasteExpo on Monday, June 8. The session, which is part of the Recycling Track, will run from 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.