Let's Do It Right!

E-WASTE: THE USED DETRITUS of our electronic society. It includes old cell phones, television sets, computers and all the other electronic products that we use so much. E-waste remains a small piece of the garbage pie, probably no more than one percent of what goes into a Subtitle D landfill.

Granted, it's a rapidly growing piece of the pie, but even as we use more of these products, e-waste will remain a very small portion of our trash.

Some people believe e-waste is hazardous because some products contain lead, mercury or other materials that neither you nor I want to have for dinner. They yell “crisis” and insist we must immediately ban the disposal of e-waste.

But is e-waste really a crisis, or is it just another recycling and disposal problem to solve? Instead of panicking and choosing the first option we stumble upon, do we have the time to proceed rationally and come up with the best way to manage e-waste?

We know, in fact, that e-waste can be disposed of safely. As I've pointed out in previous columns, absolutely no evidence exists that e-waste cannot be safely disposed in Subtitle D landfills. In July, EPA testified at a Congressional hearing on e-waste that “EPA has found that pH levels and leachate collection systems have kept contaminants from harming the environment.”

Now does this mean I am saying that land disposal is the only option for old electronics products? No. Electronics products can be designed to be greener and easier to disassemble and recycle. Some manufacturers are redesigning their products for just that purpose. They are finding ways, for instance, to use fewer screws in putting the product together so that it can be taken apart more easily. They are investigating ways to eliminate hazardous materials from their products. But let's not kid ourselves. These materials serve a useful purpose. Leaded glass in display monitors is used to protect users from radiation. Brominated flame retardants help protect computers against fires. Either will be hard to replace.

The good news is that we have time to learn the best ways to recycle e-waste. We do not need to rush headlong into the first solution that jumps at us. At present, two states, California and Maine, have taken diametrically different approaches to e-waste recycling. California requires that purchasers of certain electronic products pay an advance recycling fee at the time of purchase. The fee is used to help pay for e-waste recycling. Maine chose the “manufacturer's responsibility” model in which product manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their products are recovered for recycling.

These states are acting as laboratories, experimenting with different approaches. One of the beauties of our Federalist system is that states can function as test sites. Let's take the time to see what works and what doesn't work with these two approaches and learn from their experience.

The state of Maryland took a totally different approach. The Free State requires computer manufacturers to pay $5,000 a year to the state. This money will be used to finance local e-waste collection programs. I like that approach. Marylanders can learn how to collect e-waste efficiently while California and Maine figure out if their approaches work. The other 47 states and Congress should be so astute.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.