With the use of consumer electronics in the United States growing every day, one big question is what to do with equipment that reaches the end of its life. The logical answer is to recycle. But absent a national e-cycling standard, many consumers don't know how to recycle defunct computers, cell phones, TVs, DVD players and various other devices.
Industry observers say it is hard to estimate how much electronic equipment reaches its end of life each year and how much is recycled. A much-quoted 2006 report by the International Association of Electronics Recyclers estimated that about 400 million devices (about 2 billion pounds) are scrapped each year.
In 2005, the United States generated 2.6 million tons of electronic waste (about 1.4 percent of total discards), of which only about 12.6 percent was recycled, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition says on its Web site, citing federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data.
There have been moves on several different fronts to address the problem. Electronics "take-back" legislation was enacted in five states in the first half of this year, bringing the total number of states with electronics take-back regulations to 14 thus far, EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith said. New York City also has passed take-back legislation, with 13 states on their way to doing the same.
Several electronics manufacturers and retailers also have voluntary take-back programs, although many of these are only for their own products. Very little has been accomplished on a broad-based, nationwide basis, even though interest is high, Smith said.
The end result is a patchwork of different electronics recycling programs, each of which to some degree has different requirements, according to Joanne Sonenshine, senior manager of environmental policy and sustainability at the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), making it difficult for those involved in the industry—manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and others—to comply with all the different laws.
This isn't just inconvenient, but also very inefficient, said Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER), Davisville, W.Va. When NCER conducted a study of programs in four states—California, Maine, Maryland and Washington—a few years ago, it found that the programs generated duplication costs of about $25 million a year, he said.
While there are many differences between the programs, there are certain similarities as well, Linnell said. Thirteen of the 14 programs currently in place are funded by some variation of producer responsibility, which means that the cost of the program falls largely onto the laps of electronics manufacturers. In contrast, California's program is funded by an advance recycling fee paid by consumers on every new device purchased in the state. Other variations tend to fall into four or five basic models, with some of the major differences being whether or not to include TVs, computer equipment, small businesses, not-for-profit organizations and households, and whether individual manufacturers have to meet certain collection goals.
While there is no comprehensive federal program that parallels those established under state laws, EPA's Smith said that doesn't mean nothing has been done to address the problem on a federal level. The EPA has promulgated regulations governing the handling of cathode ray tubes (CRTs) to encourage electronics recycling, as well as taking part in the voluntary Plug-In to eCycling campaign.
"Several years ago, the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, which was sponsored by the EPA, convened stakeholders who concluded that national legislation was appropriate, but the group did not reach agreement on a proposal for funding a national program of collection and recycling for e-waste," she said, adding that from time to time Congress has introduced bills to set up a national program "but they haven't seen any serious action."
In 2005, four members of the House of Representatives—Mary Bono Mack (R., Calif.), Louise M. Slaughter (D., N.Y.), Mike Thompson (D., Calif.) and Zach Wamp (R., Tenn.)—formed the Congressional E-Waste Working Group to investigate if there could be a legislative solution, said Anne Warden, communications director for Thompson.
In February, the group released a concept paper on what a federal program should entail, which in its present form would call on manufacturers to pay for the collection and recycling of certain specified waste with assistance from electronics retailers. The EPA would oversee and administer the program nationally with state assistance. The concept paper, however, "has largely not been accepted by the key stakeholders, especially the manufacturers," said Eric Harris, director of governmental and international affairs at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).
Sonenshine said that the CEA advocates shared responsibility among all of the constituents. "Our goal is to make electronics recycling as easy and convenient for consumers as it is for them to purchase an electronic product," she said, adding that one benefit of a federal program is that there would be only one set of rules to comply with. However, lacking consensus on how to fund collection "I'm not sure how effective a program can be."
Even manufacturers aren't in agreement. In one camp are companies such as Dell Inc., Round Rock, Texas, Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., Samsung Electronics America Inc., Ridgefield Park, N.J., and Sony Electronics Inc., San Diego, Calif., advocating individual producer responsibility for products, while others—including Panasonic Corp. of North America, Secaucus, N.J., Phillips Electronics North America Corp., New York, and Sharp Electronics Corp., Mahwah, N.J.—want an advance recycling fee.
ISRI is more middle of the road. While the group would prefer the producer responsibility approach—which it says would enhance competition, better encourage marketing and development and keep prices down for the consumer—it would be willing to accept a short-term, "sunsetting" financial mechanism or fee "to help spur the market while there is negative cost for the recycling of certain items, such as monitors and CRTs, which contain lead and therefore are more costly to recycle," Harris said. However, cell phones, laptops and CPUs, all of which have a positive cost to recyclers because of the content that recyclers are able to recover, should be exempt from the fee. "There is no need to subsidize the recycling of these items," he said.
"As far as compliance, recyclers already have to comply with a number of federal standards, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. There are also laws that regulate imports and exports and there are a number of checks and balances in place," Harris said. "We don't advocate the actions of sham recyclers who are giving responsible recyclers a black eye. There are many responsible recyclers following the guidelines of ISRI's recently developed Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS). Many recyclers have MACT (maximum achievable control technology) systems in place and are in compliance with both state and federal environmental law. We are looking for a federal program that would promote that type of recycler, not including over-regulation."
Warden said that the Congressional E-Waste Working Group is currently wading through comments on the concept paper and, once done, will look to craft legislation, although it doesn't have a timeline for doing so. "This is a large and complex problem, so we want to be deliberate in an effort to come up with a solution," she said.
Meanwhile, Harris questions whether a stand-alone bill is a good idea. "I think it would have a better chance to pass if it is added onto another bill, such as a climate bill," he said.
"I think it is still possible to set up a federal program, but I believe it is still a few years away," Linnell said. "We will know more next year as a number of states will start operating their programs either in January or July 2009. If they have problems implementing their programs there will be more of a push for a national model."