E-Waste Pays

IN MAY, MARYLAND BECAME THE LATEST STATE to pass an electronic waste (e-waste) recycling law that requires computer manufacturers to pay an annual fee to fund local computer recycling programs. California and Maine have similar laws that require consumers or manufacturers to pay fees to defray the costs of recycling e-waste.

Under the terms of Maryland's bill, which takes effect July 1, manufacturers that sell an annual average of more than 1,000 computers in the state are required to register with the state by the start of 2006 and pay a $5,000 fee. In subsequent years, the manufacturers can reduce the cost of their annual registration fee to $500 by establishing programs that allow consumers to recycle the products free of charge.

Some critics are complaining that there are ways to get around the law, which will allow manufacturers to avoid setting up an e-waste recovery system. Despite the criticism, however, the state stands more to gain than to lose, if California is any indication.

In January, the Golden State became the first in the nation to implement an e-waste recycling law. The law requires California consumers to pay up to a $10 fee when they purchase electronic equipment that has been deemed as hazardous waste by the state. California uses the money to reimburse collectors and recyclers.

Now, six months after the law took effect, the California Board of Equalization has been surprised at its success. As of May, the Board had collected 30,500 fees, totaling more than $15 million from retail stores.

California's program has a few bugs that need exterminating, as expected with any new system. The law requires proof that the collected televisions, computer monitors and other electronics were generated in the state. This has been difficult, which has slowed payments to processors. E-waste processors also have been required to pay collectors 20 cents per pound for the materials, but collectors are pressuring recyclers by shopping for better prices.

Yet when you look at the overall picture, the state is achieving its goal. E-waste is being collected and recycled. New opportunities are becoming available for electronics recyclers, despite more paperwork tracking old electronics.

Of paramount importance, California has implemented an e-waste recycling law without creating an unfunded mandate. Years ago, when recycling systems for regular commodities — paper, plastic and aluminum, etc. — were installed, the cost burden was unaccounted for and frequently fell on the waste industry. Now, however, it appears that governments are getting it right. Recycling requires more than a commitment to Mother Earth: It needs responsible financing as well.

The author is the editor of Waste Age