By Lori Brown on Jul 26, 2010

Ask the Experts: Electronics

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The increasing passage of electronic waste legislation is an enormous step forward in an effort to increase national collection and recycling rates. Photo: Flickr/massdistraction

If you follow legislation pertaining to electronic waste, you probably receive a new alert as often as you do a load of laundry. From producer responsibility take-back programs to advance recovery fees, electronic waste is an ever increasing issue in public policy.

When New York Governor David Paterson signed into law the Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act on May 28, the state became the 23rd in the nation to pass legislation pertaining to the recycling and disposal of electronic waste.

Though the states have the same goals of keeping hazardous end-of-life electronics and their components out of the landfills and reducing the financial burden placed on municipalities and taxpayers, the way each approaches their objectives can vary greatly.

The increasing passage of electronic waste legislation is an enormous step forward in an effort to increase national collection and recycling rates and keep hazardous components out of the environment, but this variation in approach from state to state leads many in the industry to debate whether the right strategy is being adopted or creating a non-harmonized and segmented headache.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to this debate. States that have passed e-waste laws have shown their progressive handling of a serious environmental issue, and early data for those states has shown significant increases in electronic waste recovery. Others argue that creating 50 different e-waste laws is counterproductive and would prefer to see a blanket federal policy.

We’ll take a look at how a few distinct states manage their electronic waste laws as well as address current issues related to the collection, handling and recycling of these electronics. To get a different perspective, Earth911 interviewed Arizona State University School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment Professor Eric Williams Ph.D, considered by many to be one of the foremost electronic waste life cycle assessment experts in the United States.

New York

The newly signed New York Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act will require manufacturers of certain electronics to accept their manufactured electronics for recycling or reuse at their end of life, at no fee to the consumer, set to take effect April 2011.

This take-back program is a common form of extended producer responsibility (EPR), a way for manufacturers to bear the responsibility and show their commitment for their products long after the point of sale.

Local New York City company 4th Bin hauls off e-waste from residents and businesses. Photo: The 4th Bin

Take-back programs aim to remove the financial burden of handling this fastest-growing part of the waste stream from municipalities and taxpayers. Many believe this shift in responsibility will also encourage increased innovation in design, with more reusable and recyclable components being utilized.

Under the law, manufacturers are required to take-back their share of waste, calculated by their market share of electronic sales in New York. If they accept less, they are charged per pound of shortfall. They can also earn tradeable, saleable or bankable “recycling credits” by accepting more than their share of waste.

The law covers computers, televisions, portable digital music players, digital video recorders and electronic and video game consoles. It preempts the New York City 2008 e-waste law.

Earth911: As an average consumer, what should one look for when purchasing a new gadget? Are there specific features that will make disposing of something easier down the road?

Williams: There are some manufacturers that make it easier for consumers to recycle their products at the end-of-life by doing things like providing paid postage to mail it in, etc. So, it’s less a feature of the gadget than it is a policy that the company has put in place. Right now, that information is still not made very easy for the consumers to find. Some type of consumer card or message with the product’s packaging might make it easier for the consumers to know.

Oregon

Put into effect Jan. 1, 2009, Oregon’s HB 2626 is another example of a manufacturer financed take-back and recycling program.

The Oregon E-Cycles program is financed by electronics manufacturers and jointly implemented with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The program covers computers (desktops and laptops), monitors and televisions.

Manufacturers are assigned a recycling obligation each year by the Oregon DEQ. They may participate in one of two programs to meet this goal: a State Contractor Program (SCP) or an Independent Program.

The SCP program is a per-pound recycling fee to the Oregon DEQ, based on return share by weight. The Independent Program can be applied to manufacturers whose recycling plan is approved by the DEQ each year.

In it’s first year, Oregon’s E-Cycle program collected 18.9 million pounds of electronics, more than 5 pounds per Oregon resident.

The disposal ban component of the law went into effect Jan. 1, 2010, making it illegal for both consumers and businesses to dispose of computers, monitors and televisions in the garbage or at collection sites including landfills, incinerators or transfer stations.

Earth911: As a researcher, educator and consumer yourself, what do you think your role in refining e-waste (how it’s disposed of, where it’s disposed of and who should pay for it) in the U.S?

Williams: We have all these questions of what we ought to do with e-waste, from trade bans and recycling certifications to Energy Star certifications. The question is do these things solve the problems we thought they would solve, and do they effect other problems that we hadn’t thought about when we made those policies? As a researcher, my job is to analyze these questions and try to find alternative ideas and policies managing the social and environmental implications of e-waste.

E-waste is usually seen as a purely environmental issue. But it is a social issue as well. The problem is we’re  not trying to clean up the industry, we’re trying to just shut it down. We ought to first think of solutions that solve the environmental problems but allow people to keep their jobs. As an educator, I have to communicate these results to contribute to results and engage a broader audience.

According to Williams, “There are some manufacturers that make it easier for consumers to recycle their products at the end-of-life by doing things like providing paid postage to mail it in, etc. So, it’s less a feature of the gadget than it is a policy that the company has put in place.” Photo: Flickr/Jerry W. Lewis

California

The Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 established a funding system for the collection and recycling of certain electronic waste materials, implemented by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) working alongside the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

The Act calls for the collection of an Advance Recycling Fee (ARF) at the point of sale of certain electronic products. This Electronic Waste Recycling Fee, which ranges from $8 to $25 depending on screen size, is used to fund authorized electronic collectors and recyclers, offsetting the cost of properly managing the products at their end of life.

Unlike bottle bills, the fee is not a deposit, and the covered products do not contain redemption value. Consumers are not reimbursed this fee when covered products are turned in for recycling.

The law also calls for the reduction in hazardous substances used in certain electronic products sold in California.

Earth911: A dilemma has been how to collect e-waste in the most efficient manner that consumers will respond to. In your experience, what type of collection has been most effective? Bins and kiosks at major retail outlets, community collection events, local pickup services? Do you have ideas for solutions yourself?

Williams: There are still many open questions on this. Some preliminary work suggests the curbside tends to work best. My thoughts are that you can talk people into bringing their electronics into a retailer like Best Buy, which makes sense from a logistic efficiency perspective.

It would be more efficient than collecting at the curb at each person’s home. But the thing is, to expect people to make a separate trip for their electronics, I’m not sure people are going to really do that. If somebody’s making the trip to that central location already, that’s a bit easier, but you’re still going to have people that question why they should have to load up their electronics in their cars to do this.

In my opinion, the potential of deposit programs are great. When you buy the electronics, you may pay $10 or $20 extra upfront, and when you turn that electronic back in you get [a portion of] that money back. It seems to me that has a lot of potential to increase the collection rates as people have an economic incentive to turn those products back in [a bottle bill variation type of perspective].

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      Comments

      1. says

        Nice article breaking down some of the common EPR laws and how Dr. Williams feels we really need to change mindset of the consumer through a combination of legislation and education. Behavior changes cannot occur without educating a person as to why it benefits them personally to properly recycle. Additionally we need to make it relatively conveinent to the consumer to promote that change in behavior. If both of these criteria are not met, then recycling goals are never reached.

        Laws must be flexible enough to allow the manufacturers to provide cost effective programs for all consumers to properly recycle e-waste. The consumer needs to know it is easy, conveinent, and at no additional cost to them to recycle. They also need to be educated as to why it is important for these items to not end up in a landfill.

        On a seperate note, I would be very interested to see the % of e-waste generated by small to medium businesses (exempt from EPR laws). Most of the organizations this size do not have a written policy or budget in place to properly manage e-waste. Large corporations understand the risks associated with e-waste and tend to have established procedures in place, but smaller organzations lack this level of education. It is truly unfortuante because these smaller organizations actually expose themeselves to a higher level of risk through the negative impacts of improperly recycling (brand damage, fines, negative publicity, breaches, etc.).

      2. says

        Consumers have NO problem driving to drop-off e-waste in San Diego. Our company host free e-waste recycling events each weekend in San Diego and the lines are SHORT and we provide consumers with other useful tips, resources, and even coupons to other green minded businesses.

        The California program is the most successful program for consumers. Depending on the region many different options exist. We have many companies competing for collecting the most e-waste and we only respond to the customers demand or we go out of business. For example, California only pays us to collect and recycle CRTs, LCDs, Plasma TVs, etc. They don’t reimburse us to recycling CPUs, Printers, and other e-waste. We do collect that other e-waste for FREE to get the CRT business from the consumer. This lowers the cost drastically for consumers. We pretty much recycle 50% of what we collect AT COST.

        This “bounty” program allows all sorts of niche business models that will work in certain areas and for certain consumers and there is heavy competition. We also do our best to educate our customers and engage them by asking them what they want and we strive to meet those expectations. California was smart to create a program that was more capitalistic by allowing anyone to start a collection company and to compete. I collect more e-waste than Sony, Panasonic, and the other manufactures in San Diego and we are just a 5 man company.

      3. says

        Consumers can protect themselves from identify theft by removing personal information from any electronic device that stores memory — before they are recycled or reused. What effective options exist for consumers? And, how do we get the word out?

      4. says

        Remember, our small company is trying hard to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads. These manufactures don’t have to worry about making the mortgage payment next month. This means we work harder for our customers and keep up with customer demand. Manufactures will just throw this cost onto consumers and will run an inefficient collection program…. which will increase the cost of recycling.. and they won’t show you what it is when you buy a new TV.

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