As you read this magazine, stop and count the number of electronic devices within a 10-foot radius of you. Chances are you're near a computer, printer, cordless telephone and cell phone, and you may have an iPod and a personal digital assistant in your briefcase. Furthermore, you probably bought at least one of these items new in the last year, which means that an older version of the technology was cast aside.
In the United States alone, more than 100 million computers, monitors and televisions become obsolete each year, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington. Some estimates surmise that around 150 million cell phones will be discarded before this year ends.
Although electronic devices are used worldwide, the United States is by far the largest consumer — and therefore the largest disposer — of electronic waste (e-waste). In 2005, the last year for which complete data is available, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that an estimated 2.6 million tons of major consumer electronics were generated. Of this, only approximately 330,000 tons were recovered for recycling. Consumer electronics include products such as TVs, VCRs, DVD players, video cameras, stereo systems, telephones and computer equipment. According to the San Francisco-based nonprofit Computer TakeBack Campaign, e-waste constitutes the fastest growing portion of our waste stream — growing almost three times faster than the overall rate of MSW generation.
In the last decade, environmental organizations have raised concerns about the landfilling of this material, which is known to contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium. EPA estimates that e-waste accounts for a significant amount of the heavy metals found in landfills. While the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., both support the recycling of e-waste (see below), the organizations also maintain that there is no evidence that toxic substances leach from e-waste when the devices are placed in Subtitle D landfills.
Meanwhile, groups such as the Seattle-based Basel Action Network have claimed that up to 80 percent of the e-waste collected in the United States for “recycling” is actually sent to developing countries in Asia or elsewhere, where these products are disassembled or reused under lax and toxic conditions.
In December, four leading waste associations — SWANA, NSWMA, the Integrated Waste Services Association (IWSA), Washington, and the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), Washington — joined forces to promote reuse and recycling as the preferred method of e-scrap management. E-waste recycling can reduce the need for environmentally harmful and energy intensive mining operations, while also boosting local economies, creating jobs, transferring technologies to the developing world, and keeping the materials out of landfills, the coalition says.
The associations offered their assistance in the development of a nationwide system that would capture these goods for recycling or reuse and that could be complemented by each state. As a goal, the coalition hopes to greatly increase the recycling of e-scrap in the United States to nearly 100 percent within 10 years. All electronic product manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, federal, state and local governments, environmental groups, trade associations and other stakeholders should work toward this goal, the associations say.
Furthermore, the organizations will work to “ensure that recycling electronics products does not become an unfunded mandate for local governments or their private sector recycling contractors,” said Bruce Parker, president and CEO of NSWMA, in a press release announcing the coalition.
To begin with, the coalition is supporting the adoption of financial incentives such as federal tax credits for consumers, manufacturers, retailers and recycling operators for recycling unwanted computers, monitors and other e-waste. This proposal was included in a federal bill, S. 510, introduced two years ago by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jim Talent, R-Mo. The bill has to be reintroduced now that the 110th Congress has convened, and it didn't have any hearings in the last Congress. Whether it will gain support in the new Congress remains to be seen.
State and Local Efforts
Under federal regulations, electronic equipment that contains a cathode ray tube or mercury is considered hazardous waste, but these rules do not apply to household electronics, those so-called “small-quantity generators,” much to the chagrin of environmental groups who argue that the rule allows the landfilling of most of our electronic waste. Some states, such as California, Maine, Maryland and Washington, already have enacted laws and regulations addressing e-waste. Legislation includes bans on the disposal of e-waste in landfills and incinerators or front-end fees on consumer electronics that help offset the cost of recycling them later.
In California, consumers purchasing computer monitors, laptops and televisions pay a recycling fee that ranges from $6 to $10 per device, which can be adjusted every one to two years. The retailer collects this money and remits it to the state quarterly. The state then reimburses registered collectors or recyclers at 20 cents per pound for collection, and 28 cents per pound for recycling (for a total of 48 cents per pound).
In Maine, the burden of financing e-waste recycling is shared between local governments and manufacturers. Cities and counties collect the products and take them to consolidation facilities, which store the material for shipment to recyclers and record the amount and type recycled. The facilities then invoice manufacturers for the costs of handling, transport, recycling and consolidation.
Maryland has launched a five-year pilot program (ending in 2010) in which electronics manufacturers pay a $5,000 registration fee per year to the state's recycling fund (or $500 if they have instituted a product takeback program). If local governments set up computer collection/recycling programs, they can apply to the state recycling fund for grants to offset some costs.
According to the Computer TakeBack Campaign, Washington state has just enacted the most comprehensive e-waste recycling law in the country. The bill requires electronics manufacturers to pay for the collection, transportation and recycling of computers, monitors, and TVs from consumers, small businesses, schools, local governments and charities throughout the state.
While some recycling advocates hail these measures, others say that state-by-state programs are a piecemeal approach to a nationwide problem. Last October, the National Center for Electronics Recycling, Davisville, W.Va., released a report titled “A Study of the State-by-State E-Waste Patchwork.” The study is a first-ever effort to quantify the existing and potential economic effects of state-level electronics recycling requirements on industry, government and consumers. Drawing from estimates provided by principal public and private sector entities in state e-cycling programs, the study identifies “dead weight” costs that would not be present with a national electronics recycling program. Recurring dead weight costs of the four existing state programs are estimated at $25 million per year.
But implementing a national program is easier said than done. Not surprisingly, more regulation-friendly countries such as Japan, South Korea and most of Europe have passed laws requiring electronics manufacturers to pay for recycling programs for their products. Although widespread mandates are not likely in the United States and would be vigorously opposed by many U.S. manufacturers, some electronics manufacturers also are doing their part to deal with the mountains of waste their companies produce.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc., for example, which reportedly sell more than half the nation's personal computers, both have instituted recycling campaigns and sought to use more environmentally friendly parts. “The computer companies are definitely embracing the idea that they need to deal with their products at the end of their useful life,” Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, said in a CNN special report. “There's been a complete turnaround.”
Dell was an early leader in addressing its e-waste. In recent months, the company has pledged to phase out certain toxic chemicals and began offering free recycling for all its products. In 2005, the company reportedly recovered 80 million pounds of equipment. HP recycles about 50 million pounds of equipment at its U.S. plants and refuses to send any of that waste to landfills or overseas. The company charges for recycling, but consumers get a coupon that goes toward the purchase of new products.
Rather than new taxes or front-end fees that the company says are a turn-off to consumers, HP favors a product stewardship solution that relies on the private sector to implement workable recycling programs. Such an approach, according to a recent company report on the topic, should include the following elements: an efficient recycling framework that involves all stakeholders; the expertise and innovation of the private sector; opportunities for environmental and cost improvements over time; the avoidance of new government or quasi-government bureaucracies and new taxes or fees; and the flexibility to accommodate different business models and new products over time.
“HP supports uniform national legislation to achieve this goal,” the company stated in a recent report, “but we recognize that some states may seek to address this issue prior to the enactment of federal legislation [and that] consumer awareness of the issue is limited.”
Looking ahead, the focus of e-waste recycling advocates is shifting back from computer equipment and peripherals to televisions. As Americans increasingly purchase flat-panel TVs, untold numbers of large cathode-ray tube boxes will soon be looking for a new home. Whether that new home is a landfill — or whether those parts get a new life through recycling — is something to which many stakeholders are paying increasing attention.
Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing writer based in Arlington, Va.