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
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."