Electronics recycling is stuck in a chronic rut, with revenue from embedded materials insufficient to generate profits for many market segments. Increasingly, television and computer makers have been called upon, or forced by state legislatures, to absorb some of the net costs.
An intriguing side effect is the opportunity for big-city officials to push for the curbside pickup of electronic discards. Minneapolis already provides that service, largely at the manufacturers' expense.
New York City would like to do the same, and it is defending in court a 2008 ordinance that would require manufacturers to run, not just fund, such an arrangement. A city with many apartment dwellers who don't have cars can't rely on drop-off sites to turn in defunct TVs and computers, according to the city's line of argument.
A union has gone a step further, saying New York should have its Sanitation Department operate as a manufacturer-financed pickup program—tapping the manufacturer funding already required by the ordinance and using it to insert electronics into the existing pickup program for large home appliances. Whether New York City's ordinance ever takes effect is up to a federal court.
The underlying concept behind state laws and city ordinances is "producer responsibility." That premise states that manufacturers should assume the cost of safely retiring their products once the owner has no further use for them. States such as Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota and Washington have mandated roles for electronics manufacturers in local recycling efforts.
Under most of the state-level arrangements, a TV or computer maker can choose among three alternatives: running its own recycling program within the state, joining other companies in a broader scrap consortium or simply writing a check.
Minneapolis had an unusual motive for pioneering the curbside pickup of electronic scrap: it sends most of its trash to a waste-to-energy incinerator rather than to landfills. The increasingly influential argument against electronic goods going to landfills cites the embedded lead, cadmium and so on; for those same materials to be burned and then sometimes propelled into the air would be an even worse outcome.
"Even though (Hennepin Energy Recovery Center) is a county facility, it's in downtown Minneapolis," said Susan Young, director of the city's Solid Waste and Recycling Office. "Anything that I can do to keep ugly stuff from getting into it then there's less potential for ugly stuff coming out."
Minneapolis started curbside pickup of electronics before there was a state electronics recycling law, she said, noting that moving early was politically savvy. "With a successful program out there, we could make sure that they wouldn't write something that we couldn't live with," she said. "It's not a separate truck or a separate collection. The electronics are collected (at two-week intervals) with other problem materials—refrigerators, freezers, bikes, lawnmowers, snowmobiles, car parts and hot water heaters."
The city's 2008 statistics show an outlay of roughly $900,000 for curbside collection of all the problem recyclables, totaling 3,097 short tons, from 108,000 residences. The post-collection handling of electronic scrap from Minneapolis is done by Hennepin County.
In 2006, the last full year before the Minnesota electronics recycling law took effect, the county was spending 37 cents per pound to handle electronics scrap, even after subtracting revenue from materials sales. That figure fell to 26 cents per pound in 2007 and to just 2 cents in 2008, and has been estimated at 7 cents per pound for 2009.
"In future years, we want to get it down to zero," said Amy Roering, supervising environmentalist for the Hennepin County Department of Environmental Services.
How much money gets spent by manufacturers isn't reported to the state. In early 2008, near the top of the market for the value of embedded materials, Apple Inc. paid Hennepin County $191,508 to receive state credit for the recycling of 1.12 million pounds of electronics during some early months of 2008. The total weight in that 2007-08 program year was 33.6 million pounds. Those figures suggest that TV and computer makers in Minnesota paid $5.7 million during the program year ended mid-2008.
One outside comparison portrays Minnesota's electronics recycling program as the most successful among its peers in relation to population. The Electronics Takeback Coalition has posted a table with annual pounds per person for five states having electronics recycling laws. For the latest period available, Minnesota leads with 6.46 pounds, followed by California (5.91 pounds), Washington (5.87 pounds), Oregon (5.09 pounds) and Maine (3.99 pounds). More than a dozen other states have passed laws but don't yet have track records. The varying product scope and financial structure of state plans make such comparisons suggestive, not authoritative.
The Minnesota program structure maximizes flexibility, since manufacturers can negotiate—and alter at will—how closely they want to be involved in the actual recycling activities vs. writing checks. However, the law's structure made manufacturers nervous about e-scrap handlers hoarding unsold credits to force up their value, and the law was amended to include maximum cents-per-pound values when credits change hands.