Banning E-Waste

KING COUNTY, WASH., has joined the list of local and state governments that have banned the disposal of certain electronic devices in landfills. As of October, county residents can no longer place cell phones, computers, monitors or televisions in their household trash or drop them off at transfer stations. Instead, they must be recycled. The law also applies to mercury-containing devices such as batteries and light bulbs.

“We need to recycle these products to ensure that our health and environment are not compromised,” said Jeff Gaisford, recycling and environmental services manager for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks' Solid Waste Division, in a city press release. Electronics often contain toxic substances such as lead and mercury.

King County's new law comes amid a growing debate about how to handle electronic waste (e-waste). Several federal bills aimed at creating a national system for recycling e-waste have been introduced within the last year. One bill would provide businesses and consumers with tax credits for recycling electronic devices; another would impose a fee on the sale of electronics to fund an e-recycling grant program. Meanwhile, California; Maine; Massachusetts; Snohomish County, Wash.; and Seattle also have banned the disposal of certain types of e-waste in recent years.

The e-waste issue has been fueled by the quick pace by which Americans are buying and discarding electronics. While outdated electronic devices are often left at home, approximately 2 million tons of e-waste are disposed in landfills each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington. Because of the toxic substances that electronic devices often contain, environmental groups argue that it is dangerous to place them in landfills.

However, the solid waste industry says that there is no evidence that toxic substances leach from e-waste when the devices are placed in Subtitle D landfills. In August, Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), and John Skinner, executive director and CEO of the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), wrote a letter to Congress stating that electronics could be safely disposed of in such landfills. The two were seeking to correct what they labeled as “a number of inaccurate statements that were made” during a congressional subcommittee hearing. In the letter, Parker and Skinner say their organizations “strongly support the recycling of electronic products as the first priority waste management option for these materials.”

According to a recent Waste Age column by Chaz Miller, state programs director for NSWMA, lead can leach from e-waste during the EPA's Toxicity Characteristics Leaching Procedure (TCLP) [“Toxic Trash,” Waste Age, October 2005, p. 14]. However, the TCLP does not replicate landfill conditions, Miller says. “The TCLP requires that the tested product be ground up into itty-bitty pieces and then placed in an acid bath for 18 hours,” he writes. “Neither garbage trucks nor landfills grind up trash, and the pH of a landfill is neutral, not acidic.”

A prominent national recycling association has challenged the positions of NSWMA and SWANA. In October, the Washington-based National Recycling Coalition (NRC) said that it disagrees with the two organizations on the disposal of e-waste in landfills and urged that electronics collected in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita be recycled or reused instead of landfilled. “Given that several states banned the disposal of [cathode ray tubes] and other electronics products, NRC believes it is irresponsible to negate the risk posed by disposing of electronic scrap,” said Kate Krebs, executive director of NRC, in a press release.

NRC believes that if electronics collected during the recovery efforts cannot be recycled or reused, then the devices should be disposed of in hazardous waste landfills.