Working on Waste

The compliance load builds up for manufacturers as states continue to issue and rework laws governing how to deal with leftover electronics.
Sarah JohnsonApril 22, 2011

In the coming months, Congress will give another go at passing a law restricting how electronic devices are recycled. Previous attempts at establishing a nationwide stance for preventing the transfer of the growing heap of TVs, cell phones, and computers from the United States to developing nations haven’t passed the committee stage.

Critics of sending discarded electronics overseas say the practice releases toxic substances, such as lead and mercury, into the environment and harms the people ripping apart the devices for reusable materials, under often unsafe conditions. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) is working with others in Congress to reintroduce a bill that would ban those exports, his spokesman said.

As it is, the United States lacks a nationwide mandate for the disposal of unusable electronics beyond those containing hazardous waste (only products with a
cathode-ray tube or mercury fall under that category in Environmental Protection Agency regulations). Instead, state laws have proliferated at a quick clip — relative to the pace of the general legislative process — with 5 of the 25 states that have some sort of electronic waste (or e-waste) law having passed it within the past year (see chart). Five more states have introduced bills this year. The rules largely put the onus on the products’ manufacturers to take on varying degrees of responsibility for getting — or at least encouraging — consumers to recycle e-waste.

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As environmental advocates celebrate the 41st anniversary of Earth Day today, groups on various sides of the debate over e-waste have mixed feelings about a broad national law that would mimic some of the state laws. Mike Watson, director of Dell’s Take Back program, posits that such a law wouldn’t override existing rules and would instead carry with it 25 exemptions for every state that has a law.

More likely to garner widespread support is legislation like Thompson’s that would focus solely on banning the export of e-waste. Such a bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) last year, was supported by both environmental groups and businesses, including Dell, Samsung, and Apple.

E-Waste State Map

All sides do agree that companies having to deal with multiple rules in multiple states — as companies that operate across states do now — is not ideal. The rules vary: California’s seven-year-old law mandates that consumer recycling fees be tacked on to certain products, while Utah’s month-old law requires manufacturers to file an annual report on their programs to the state and provide education to consumers.

Some states impose annual registration fees on companies that do business there (including Hawaii, Maryland, and Illinois); the fees range from $2,000 to $5,000, with some charging a $10,000 initial registration. Plus, the products covered under the varying rules differ, and the existing rules frequently change; for example, Maine amended its rules two years ago to include desktop printers and video-game consoles. “No two are exactly alike,” says Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability for the Consumer Electronics Assn. “They’re quite a patchwork of varying state requirements.”

Last week the CEA released a statement pledging that its members will triple the amount of electronics recycled by 2016, to 1 billion pounds. Alcorn acknowledges that this initiative, which will include progress reports and education programs, is designed to promote the idea of what he calls a “national, operational model” for the benefit of corporations.

The announcement immediately was criticized by environmental groups for lacking detail on how practices will change. “This is an effort, in my view, to keep states from passing laws,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator at the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which is pushing for “responsible recycling” from the electronics industry.

After watching companies push back against previous discussions to draft a national bill, the coalition believes a broad national law would likely be a watered-down version of state rules. “They want a federal bill that would preempt the strong bills in the states that are actually making them do something,” says Kyle.

She believes companies won’t become more active in their recycling efforts unless it’s forced upon them. For example, Texas reported in February, two years after its e-waste law was passed, that companies in the state collected 19.5 million pounds of unused computers, monitors, and the like in 2010, or 5 million pounds more than the previous year.

Even if Congress fails to pass any type of e-waste law this year, companies needing to rid themselves of electronics may want to take a closer look at the recyclers they use in order to mitigate any risk to their reputation, suggests Mike Enberg, enterprise manager at e-Stewards, a nonprofit that has designed a standard for recyclers.

An e-Stewards certification means those vendors do not export old electronics to developing countries and do meet the requirements of all state laws. “Companies need to establish a plan that protects the organization from possible litigation or violations that will tarnish its reputation,” says Enberg.