E-waste legislation expands in United States
by Irwin Rapoport
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
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
“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”
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
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
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
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.