Sorting Out E-waste

For the uninitiated, the slew of issues, as well as state and international regulations governing electronics recycling can be as complicated as computer engineering itself. To help get stakeholders and policymakers on the same page, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Technology Administration has released an expansive report on e-waste that, among other things, reiterates the need for a national solution without advocating one financing system over another.

“What this does is aggregate all of these points of view on what is obviously a complex, complicated subject,” says Kristina Taylor, manager of Environmental and State Policy Communications for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), based in Arlington, Va. The nearly 300-page report, “Recycling Technology Products: An Overview of E-waste Policy Issues,” covers a gamut of issues and begins by offering commentary from manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and consumers on the criteria for creating a national recycling system. “I think in some cases, we might find out that we as stakeholders actually agree on more than we think we do,” Taylor adds. The points most frequently agreed upon by participants in a Technology Administration public roundtable include the need for consumer education, design improvements, flexibility in collection methods and auditing of dismantlers and recyclers.

The report also examines various recycling system models and outlines the European Union's Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives, as well as e-waste policies of nearly a dozen countries. International action is likely to significantly affect policy at home, according to Taylor and Eric Harris, director of international and government affairs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington. Taylor points out that California's SB20, the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003, references the RoHS Directive, and Taylor says that the WEEE Directive is making the products found on American retail shelves greener.

Among other organizations, both CEA and ISRI have expressed support for the report. “Generally we are encouraged by the report because it does show some time and energy invested by the Department of Commerce,” Harris says. “They are beginning to realize that this is more of a commodity-like material than waste, so it makes sense for them to weigh in from a policy perspective because this is something that could have a positive impact on the economy.”

While ISRI generally praised the report, the institute is advocating the term e-scrap rather than e-waste, which it believes mischaracterizes the material's potential value. CEA also would prefer more accurate terminology. Harris argues that the material needs to be viewed less as waste, in part, to prevent overregulation of electronics recycling.

Along those lines, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to streamline the electronics recovery and recycling process by excluding cathode ray tubes (CRTs) — found in television and computer monitors — from the federal hazardous waste management standards in certain cases. Now, used CRTs headed for recycling are not considered hazardous waste as long as they are unbroken and not stored for more than one year. In explaining the change, EPA pointed out that because of the lead contained in CRTs, parties sometimes were unsure of how to deal with the material, thereby preventing recycling and reuse. For additional details on the lengthy rule, visit

The commerce report can be downloaded at

TAGS: E-Waste