To speak of organizing electronics recycling is, perhaps, an oxymoron. At least 17 states have passed e-cycling laws, starting with California in 2003. Many of them require the manufacturers of computers and televisions to play a financial role, but each state does it differently. And Texas doesn't mention televisions.
The proliferation got worse earlier this year, when New York City got into the act. The city council passed an ordinance that included a formula for imposing recycling quotas on individual manufacturers, with the quotas moving higher over time. Companies sighed with relief when Mayor Michael Bloomberg forced deletion of that provision from the broader measure on manufacturer responsibility.
But wait—there's a sequel .?.?. as there usually is in electronics recycling. The city's Department of Sanitation, in charge of the program, proposed that discarded electronics gear weighing 10 pounds or more should be picked up, at the manufacturers expense, if the customer requests it. Not a good idea, the equipment makers said. And so another wrangle began over how the program will be handled.
There's still some possibility of a federal law on the subject, according to Steve Skurnac, president of Sims Recycling Solutions' North American unit, but he told AMM that he wouldn't expect anything to happen until late 2009. Skurnac's company is the largest U.S. electronics recycler in terms of material processed by its own equipment.
An October conference call aired some of the frustrations and improvisations caused by the current patchwork. The 90-minute forum, featuring manufacturer presentations, was off the record. The "who" can't be disclosed, but a look at some of the viewpoints is illuminating.
One option is for manufacturer alliances to develop so that there won't be 80 or more separate takeback programs—an approach encouraged by some of the state laws already in place. But that agenda leads to a different complication how much should each participating manufacturer be paying? It might be pleasant to avoid a formula set by lawmakers, but there still has to be one.
Allocating responsibility is key, a panelist familiar with the issue said.
One company said it was exploring the possibility of reverse logistics. Since it has an extensive network for delivering goods to retailers, it might be able to use its own delivery system to bring back discards for recycling. But that could become a legal nightmare in states with electronics recycling laws that define "collectors" and specify qualifications, procedures and reporting requirements for them, he said.
Two participants said it's a bad idea to specify some products as eligible for recycling and other products not; if you're going to set up a program, take all your branded stuff, they said.
One speaker pointed to an analogous problem that California has encountered the legislature's definition of eligible products doesn't appear to have had much influence on the people who own and discard electronic goods. The "don't" list seemingly is ignored by ordinary consumers, so a company organizing a drop-off recycling event in California will discover that half the goods brought in don't qualify for reimbursement from the state recycling fund. (California's reimbursement payments derive from a tax-like surcharge on purchases of new electronics.) In the real world, nobody at the recycling event will tell the consumer to take the ineligible stuff back home. The unsubsidized equipment often gets recycled at a loss. Sometimes it simply is shipped abroad to a fate that might include polluting some other country's environment.
An interesting dialogue occurred regarding Vermont recycling. The speaker from one manufacturer pointed to that state as a jurisdiction where drop-off sites are conveniently available nearly everywhere without the legislature having acted. But those sites aren't well publicized, according to a Vermonter in the conference call's audience, who said the state probably recycles fewer pounds of electronic discards per person than many other states. At a minimum, manufacturers should be funding a statewide effort to make Vermont's recycling sites better known and to encourage their use, she said.
A Texas law passed last year was praised as an example of how to get product makers active in recycling without telling them how to do it. The measure, which took effect Sept. 1, requires no-fee takeback of a manufacturer's own brands of computers and monitors. Televisions aren't included. The Texas statute became a model this year, imitated by the legislatures of Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia and West Virginia.
One speaker noted that states aren't the only entities that twist arms to foster electronics recycling. He mentioned that Wal-Mart has asked electronics makers that it buys from to fill out an environmental scorecard. The idea is that highly rated manufacturers will receive larger orders and better display from the retailer.
But the Wal-Mart executive that briefed the electronics community on the project also urged action by Congress, according to a Reuters report early this year. "We'd like to see some kind of federal legislation that would take all the individual state programs and bring it together," said Kevin O'Connor, Wal-Mart's general merchandise manager for consumer electronics.
During the conference call's question-and-answer session, an audience member praised Hewlett-Packard Co. for making public the exact questions it asks of recycling contractors in its efforts to carry out what is sometimes called "downstream due diligence"—checking up on what becomes of the products and materials in the recycling stream. If the results are displeasing, the contractor is dropped. Companies represented in the conference call should do the same thing, she added.
Several speakers said their agendas require maximum discretion in choosing vendors and contractors on the basis of low cost and acceptance of standards. "We want the ability to walk away from a vendor if we don't like what they're doing," one speaker said. "Some of the state programs don't allow us to do that."