AUGUST 2008

E-waste legislation expands in United States
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Tackling the issue of e-waste and e-cycling in the United States will not be an easy one, but according to Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the San Francisco-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC), pressure is mounting in the form of state “producer responsibility” legislation and landfill bans for electronic equipment.

While figures vary, Kyle notes that one industry association estimates that Americans – individuals, companies, institutions and government – dispose of 400 million units of electronics annually.

There are some good   recyclers that are         doing the right things     and making money.

According to a 2005 EPA study, 85 percent of this material is either landfilled or incinerated, with the remainder diverted to recyclers.

“But most of that material gets exported – the recyclers don’t recycle it,” says Kyle. “Not a lot of it is being reused or recycled. From what the recyclers tell us, 50 to 80 percent of what is collected for recycling gets exported.

“Many of the companies who are truly recycling (and not simply exporting) electronics are also promoting reuse,” she adds. “If the whole unit can be reused, they will refurbish it. Component parts can be reused and the rest of the computer has to be sorted into separate material streams and be processed to be recycled into other materials.”

While California has SB20 (2003), which charges consumers an up-front recycling fee for the purchase of computer monitors and televisions – the money collected is placed into a fund to pay for recycling, the other states with e-cycling laws follow the principle of “producer responsibility” legislation.

The 15 states with producer responsibility legislation are Maine (2004); Maryland (2005); Washington (2006); Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas and North Carolina (all passed in 2007); and New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri, Hawaii and Rhode Island (all passed in 2008).

New Hampshire and New Mexico have legislation in place.

Illinois’ legislation passed both houses July 10 and is going to the governor for signature.

New York City, the first municipality to do so, recently passed its e-waste legislation. Thus far, 19 states have considered e-waste bills.

In general, this legislation requires electronics manufacturers to be responsible for collection and disposal of their old products, and set up programs to collect their old products at reasonably convenient locations. As well, manufacturers must register with state environmental agencies and pay registration fees to cover state costs for recycling programs.

The majority of the state laws will take effect in 2009 and Kyle anticipates that states considering similar legislation will be heartened by the results.

“The California model is dead,” says Kyle. “It’s not going to be passed anywhere else in this country. Those bills don’t even get out of committee anymore. The manufacturers’ coalition of television companies led by Panasonic, Philips and Sharp that was promoting is gone.

“Panasonic has made statements acknowledging that producer responsibility is the way to go and it has formed a recycling company with Sharp and Toshiba to meet their obligation in Minnesota and presumably will move it to other states,” she adds. “There are variations between producer responsibility laws – some are stronger than others, with some that only apply to computer companies and not televisions.”

Kyle does not support SB20 because it removes the emphasis of producers to be responsible for their products.

“At some point, the light has to go on for them to say, we must be able to save some money if we make products that are more recyclable,” she says. “A key concept of producer responsibility is that it helps motivate green design. If Hewlett-Packard, as they do, claims that their products are more recyclable, than theoretically they are adding less money into their internalized price to cover the cost of recycling.”

Minnesota is considered to have the strongest law due to the specific goals that are tied to companies and which have to collect and recycle 60 percent of the video display licenses they sold in previous years by weight within the first year of the program. The percentage increases in subsequent years.

Most state legislation covers monitors, laptops and monitors, with some adding faxes, printers and mice.

“We have basically been working on these bills since early this decade and now things are getting more aggressive as far as the scope of products and performance measures,” says Kyle, who notes that performance goals are key to act as drivers to get manufacturers to make the effort to secure the return of their products.

Some state legislation allows companies to pay into a central fund to cover the costs of state-run program. Kyle says this costs more per pound and serves as an incentive for companies to establish their own programs.

Because export law is a federal jurisdiction, states cannot forbid the export of e-waste to developing countries. The export of e-waste to developing countries such as China, Vietnam and to Africa is raising concerns about the export of hazardous material, the use of child labor and recycling processes that are not environmentally friendly.

The ETBC would like to see the federal government enact legislation that would ban the export of toxic materials to developing countries.

Kyle notes that it is impossible to fully recycle electronics in the United States. “We don’t have the smelters that can handle circuit boards and we only have one smelter for glass and it has very limited capacity,” she says. “The glass and circuit boards have to be exported and we want them to go to the developed world, to the best smelters in the world.”

America did not ratify the Basel Convention, covering the trade of toxins between nations. By exporting electronics to developing nations, Kyle says the United States is violating their laws.

“We should not be trading with the countries that are party to that agreement because we did not ratify it,” she says. “But they are not pressing charges against the United States because they have very limited enforcement of their laws, especially on health and safety issues, which is another reason why we don’t want our stuff to go there.”

These products, says Kyle, should be sent to Japan and Europe, particularly Belgium and Scandinavia, that have the proper smelters and have profitable operations.

“The links are there and plenty of people are using them,” she says. “There are some good recyclers that are doing the right things and making money. It’s not impossible.

“And now it is coming back in children’s jewelry,” she adds. “It has been documented that some of the lead solder from e-waste in China is in these products. The Wall Street Journal made the connection between the people melting down the solder off circuit boards and then selling it other metal companies that are selling it to the jewelry companies.”

In passing landfill bans for e-waste, which often occurs when new legislation is enacted, states begin to build an e-cycling infrastructure. “It’s a really good start and that is what many are doing – it’s happening at a fairly robust pace,” says Kyle.