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
"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
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
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
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.