Feds and E-Waste

A NEW REPORT BY THE investigative arm of Congress is calling for an increased federal role in the recycling of electronic waste (e-waste).

The Government Accountability Office's (GAO) report calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, to take the lead role in crafting legislation for a national system to finance e-waste recycling. The report also urges the EPA to require federal agencies to participate in the agency's e-waste recycling initiatives.

About 100 million computers, monitors and televisions become obsolete each year, according to the GAO. The majority of the used devices are stored in garages, attics or warehouses, the report says.

E-waste recycling has been stymied because of the lack of a national financing system, the GAO says. “Consumers have the cheaper and more convenient option of simply throwing these products away in most states,” the report says. “Without a fundamental change in the incentive structure affecting their decisions, such as through the implementation of a consistent nationwide financing system, consumers will continue to choose disposal as the preferable option of dealing with used electronics in the overwhelming number of states where disposal is allowed.” Navigating the current patchwork of state e-waste recycling laws also places “a substantial burden on manufacturers, retailers and recyclers,” the report adds.

In a letter to the GAO, the EPA praises the report as “very well-written, carefully researched and clearly argued.” However, the EPA says it should not take the lead role in crafting federal legislation to finance e-waste nationwide because it is “not in the best position to choose between competing financing solutions, given that this decision is one that is fundamentally a business and economic issue, rather than an environmental issue.” The EPA also disagrees with the recommendation to require federal agencies to participate in the agency's e-waste recycling initiatives, saying participation is already adequate.

Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), says lawmakers should be deliberate in their attempts to implement e-waste laws. “Instead of rushing to pass e-waste legislation at the state or federal level, we should learn from the experience that California — with its advance recycling fee — and Maine — with its manufacturer responsibility law — have had in implementing their e-recycling laws,” he says. “We have the time to do the job right, so let's get some understanding first how these approaches work.” [See “Let's Do It Right!”, p. 16]

John Skinner, executive director and CEO of the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), says his organization believes that “e-waste recycling is clearly preferable to disposal and would prefer to see a federal approach [to e-waste recycling] — legislation or otherwise — rather than a proliferation of different state laws.” However, he questions whether the EPA will be able to take a lead role in the formulation of any federal e-waste legislation. “Having worked at the EPA for many years, I understand how difficult it is for the agency to take the lead within [a presidential administration] in crafting national legislation,” Skinner says.

Several federal bills aimed at creating a national system have been introduced. A House bill (H.R. 425) would impose an upfront fee on the sale of computers and other electronic devices to fund an electronics recycling grant program. A Senate bill (S. 510) would provide businesses and consumers with tax credits for recycling electronic devices.

The push for e-waste recycling has come about in part because of concerns about placing electronic devices — which often contain toxic substances — in landfills. However, both SWANA and NSWMA say that there is no evidence that toxic substances leach from e-waste when placed in Subtitle D landfills, and the GAO report says that “one study suggests that this leaching does not occur in modern U.S. landfills.” However, the fact that used U.S. electronics often are exported to countries that lack “modern landfills” is a reason to increase e-waste recycling, the report argues.