In the design contest for state-mandated recycling programs, California has managed to become the captain of both teams.
The state's electronics recycling program, launched in 2005 for televisions and computer monitors, is based on an advanced recovery fee—ARF, in recycling circles—of $6 to $10 levied on buyers of new equipment. The state moves the money through a fund that reimburses collectors and recyclers.
Although California was the first state to mandate a program for defunct electronics, all the later states that did so chose a different approach producer responsibility, or extended producer responsibility (EPR) in wonk speak. The agency that runs California's fee-based program for discarded electronics recently adopted its own producer responsibility strategic directive to shape future recycling initiatives. For the guidance of the legislature, it also has prepared an Extended Producer Responsibility Framework, into which future product-specific or substance-specific activities could be fitted.
So the first state with ARF for computers and televisions might also become the first state with a multi-product EPR on its statutes.
If this happens, future mandatory recycling programs on specific products would assign the costs—and much of the implementation—to manufacturers. The extent to which retailers or local government might become involved would be decided on a case-by-case basis. What the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) is developing is a basic structure for recycling. The choice of discarded goods it should cover would be made separately.
British Columbia already uses that approach, but it was adopted by the province's environmental agency without the legislature writing a new law.
Scrapyards might wish to keep an eye on what recyclables get selected for producer responsibility if California enacts that approach.
In a preliminary assessment by CIWMB staff, one of the five categories viewed as most eligible for manufacturer responsibility was major appliances, a.k.a. white goods. If a manufacturer responsibility law is passed and major appliances become one of its elements, that might change the current pathway of household to scrap processor to shredder. Or even if the collection arrangements stay the same, manufacturers might be required to provide some reimbursement money along the way.
One reason major appliances made it onto the preliminary list is that too many of them don't find their way to scrapyards or to public landfill dumps that can divert them to recycling channels. "Major appliances, along with furniture, are the most commonly illegally dumped products and are cumbersome and expensive items for local agencies to collect and dispose of," a CIWMB staff document said.
At least one potential headache for the scrap industry faded along the way. The list of 42 possible products under such a California law was winnowed twice, first to a list of 14 and then to a high-priority list of five.
Aside from major appliances, the finalists as most-likely producer responsibility candidates were bulbs containing mercury, paint, non-automotive batteries and electronics.
With computer monitors, televisions and DVD players already covered under one existing program—and cell phones under another—the electronics that eventually might be recycled at manufacturer expense include audio equipment, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and handheld games.
Even if California should pass a multi-product manufacturer responsibility law ahead of states, British Columbia created such a structure first by administrative fiat. The province's product list includes electronics, lead-acid batteries, oil, medications, paint, a category covering solvents and pesticides, tires and beverage containers. Manufacturers play a key role in the province's recycling arrangements, although there is variation in the extent to which such recycling is mandatory.
Tires used to be covered by a provincial recycling incentive program, funded by a C$3 ARF-style surcharge on every tire sold. Effective January 2007, however, it was replaced by a recycling program run by the Rubber Association of Canada, the Retail Council of Canada and the Western Canada Tire Dealers Association.
Many electronics makers have expanded their U.S. recycling activities over the past two years, even as most remain opposed to legal mandates. Sony Corp. is cooperating with Waste Management Inc.'s Recycle America unit to take back, without charge, household discards originally made by Sony at 79 locations in 18 states, with more sites to come; Dell Inc. is cooperating in many areas with Goodwill Industries in handling recycling take-backs; and with an electronics recycling law soon taking effect in Minnesota, Panasonic Corp. of North America, Sharp Corp. and Toshiba America Electronic Components Inc. have formed a consortium to handle recycling.
"The manufacturers are five years late getting going but they're finally making a serious effort to do something," said David Zimet, president of New Jersey electronics recycler Hesstech LLC. "Let's give them a chance to prove what they can do." He recently predicted that a trial-and-error learning period, with manufacturers competing among themselves to develop practical programs, should lead to extremely efficient structures.
A potential model for manufacturer responsibility in the United States is a Brussels-based consortium called European Recycling Platform, which operates through two contractors in nine European Union countries while an affiliate is setting up operations in 20 other European countries. Participating manufacturers include Braun, Electrolux, Hewlett-Packard, Konica Minolta, Lucent Technologies, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba.