California Follows EU's E-Waste Lead

WHILE THE UNITED STATES lumbers toward adopting a national e-waste policy, California is leading the charge for states to make big decisions on how to recycle electronics.

The state senate approved a bill June 4 that is modeled after the Product Stewardship Initiative, adopted by the European Union late last year. Senate Bill (S.B.) 20 requires manufacturers of hazardous, lead-containing electronic devices, such as computer monitors and televisions, to establish and implement collection and recycling programs for their products. By 2010, the program must result in 90 percent diversion of all toxic, e-waste devices sold in the state.

Although electronics manufacturers will be under the gun to devise a recycling program, S.B. 20 will release waste companies from their e-waste burden. Allied Waste Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Waste Management Inc., Houston, are official supporters of the bill.

“We expect the bill will go through a series of amendments,” says Kent Stoddard, director of public affairs for Waste Management's western group, “but the concept that there has to be some way to help share costs of this is a really big issue. I'd say pretty much the whole waste industry is behind S.B. 20.”

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste (CAW), Sacramento, says waste companies were already collecting e-waste when the state deemed cathode ray tubes (CRTs) illegal to place in landfills in March 2001. “Waste companies became stuck with the stuff,” he says. “In addition to the burden of collecting e-waste, [haulers] pay a tipping fee when they hand [e-waste] over to recyclers that's about $400 to $600 a ton, whereas [landfill] tipping fees are $35, max.”

The bill currently is before the state assembly. The final policy meeting is scheduled for July 7, and the law is expected to be in place by Jan. 1, 2004. The time frame, however, is not as important as how the bill specifically will affect manufacturers.

According to Murray, electronics manufacturers are divided on how to approach their imminent recycling conundrum. Hewlett Packard (HP), for example, is promoting a shared-responsibility program in which manufacturers offer free recycling to local governments. Governments still would have to pay for collection costs, Murray says. HP currently is taking back its products.

Murray says the other industry camp, led by Panasonic, Sony and Philips, believes a consumer point-of-sale fee should be added at retail establishments. They argue this fee would support a fund to reimburse recyclers or local governments for recycling costs.

According to CAW, six million cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are stockpiled in the state, and the cost for managing them is $265 million, which likely will be spread over the next three to five years. Stoddard says the waste industry's support of S.B. 20 is intimately tied to a fear of what will happen when the stockpiled surplus of CRTs begins flowing into the waste stream.

Nine days after the Senate approved S.B. 20, the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) met in Seattle. NEPSI is a national effort partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., that brings together representatives from environmental groups, industry and government to discuss a national solution to e-waste recycling. But NEPSI has been unable to define its approach.

“The feeling was this would probably be the last meeting of NEPSI,” Murray says. “There's no common consensus and no forum … because no one expects the Republican-controlled congress to adopt producer responsibility.” In spite of the group's division, NEPSI will not disband.