While most electronics recyclers agree, at least in principle, that a federal recycling program is preferable to the current patchwork of state-mandated and company-run programs, there are differing opinions on whether federal legislation will ever be enacted and, if so, how a federal program would work in practice.
"It is confusing the way it is now," Bob Erie, chief executive officer of E-World Recyclers LLC, Vista, Calif., said.
Amanda Hale, vice president of marketing at Sims Recycling Solutions, West Chicago, Ill., agrees. "A federal program is badly needed. I don't think that there is any other long-term, viable, sustainable choice. But while I'm hopeful that it will eventually happen, it will be a long road, a long struggle, before it does." In the meantime, the states and electronics manufacturers will continue "to do their own thing."
A waiting game might not be all that bad, according to David Kutoff, president and chief executive officer of Materials Processing Corp., Eagan, Minn. "Our main interest is that electronic equipment does not go to the landfill and that it is handled properly. We have no problem if states feel that they need to enact electronic recycling laws until the federal government gets its act together," he said. When electronic equipment is landfilled, "you throw out natural resources that you can't ever get back."
"Probably less than 25 percent of electronic equipment is recycled now," said Joe Clayton, director of sales for Synergy Recycling LLC, Mayodan, N.C. Clayton believes that a federal law banning electronic equipment from landfills should be passed even if a federal electronics recycling program isn't set up, as should legislation that would result in one set of rules detailing what can or can't be exported.
"Some people will continue to throw out electronic equipment they are no longer using unless there is a landfill ban," Clayton said. "I think consumers want to be responsible, but the problem is that in many areas of the country recycling options (and information about the options available) are limited."
Hale noted that already 14 states (plus New York City) have passed electronics recycling legislation and about 13 more are currently working on doing so. "While there are certain similarities state to state, there are also a number of inconsistencies, a number of differences," she said. "That makes it difficult for both electronics producers and recyclers to comply with all these programs."
It is very difficult for recyclers when they do business in several states that have rules that aren't compatible, Erie said. For example, in some states, like Nevada, end-of-life electronics are considered hazardous waste, while other states, like California, label it as universal waste. This can be very problematic, he said, given that most California processors aren't certified hazardous waste facilities "so we can't unload anything classified (in another state) as hazardous waste and recycle it here. What we need to do is send it back, have it reclassified as a non-working device or commodity and then repurchase it—often for $1—since if it isn't classified as waste by the generator it isn't hazardous waste (in California)."
This type of scenario, which seems to be routine throughout the United States, results in delays in the recycling of electronic devices. "And the delays will continue as long as there is no alignment of rules state by state," Erie said.
But the development of a national program is going very, very slowly, Hale said. While the Congressional E-Waste Working Group has released a concept paper, it is just an outline. "They haven't drafted any legislation yet and I'm not sure how fast they will move on that," she said.
"There are a number of issues that people need to get their arms around" before such legislation can be passed, Kutoff said. One major question is how to implement a federal program so that it satisfies the needs of all the states that have already established mandates of their own. "One problem is that even if there is a federal program, the states don't need to follow it if they have more-stringent requirements," he said. This could mean that companies will still have to follow several sets of rules.
Another key question centers on how the export of scrapped electronic equipment will be handled, Erie said. "Some people are dead set against exporting waste. However, most producers have moved manufacturing to other areas of the world, including China and elsewhere in Asia, to lower their costs. We want to disassemble electronics equipment and send components to the manufacturers so that they can use the materials we collect to make new products."
"I don't think that we will ever see federal legislation governing the entire electronics recycling operation," Clayton said. "There could be legislation for certain parts or components, but not the whole thing."
Erie doesn't necessarily share that view, noting that federal regulation of certain aspects of the process is already occurring. "There are currently certain federal guidelines governing the recycling of cathode ray tubes (CRTs), and work on a federal responsible recycling, or R2, code for electronic products has just started field testing," he said. "I'm confident that there eventually will be a national program with one set of standards. I think that will happen when manufacturers take a more active role than in the past." This is already starting to occur with a number of electronics producer-based programs, some of which are expanding nationwide, at least for the products they produce.