Computers have an average life expectancy of three to six years. After that, it’s often time to pull the plug, leaving consumers with a problem: What does one do with the old when bringing in the new? Chances are the local landfill won’t take it.
Computers, especially cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, contain several elements harmful to the environment. The good news is that these elements are usually recyclable. The bad news is this costs money, and nonprofit companies that accept donations often get stuck with having to dispose of computer electronics in an environmentally safe and economically feasible way.
“Electronic waste is becoming a costly problem for us,” said Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, spokeswoman of Goodwill Industries International Inc. “[In 2004] alone, we got more than 23 million pounds of electronic goods, and 10 to 30 percent of those donations were unusable.”
As computer use continues to increase dramatically, the United States will face more and more electronic waste considered toxic and unfit for burial. For this reason, Congress initiated a working group to determine a course of action.
But devising federal legislation could take a while. In the meantime, a few states have enacted their own laws to effectively handle electronic waste.
California, Maine and Maryland have already created laws, but differing state laws mandating financial contributions from manufacturers scattered throughout the nation could create confusion for global electronics manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard (HP) — confusion that could be minimized or eliminated with a single, unified nationwide system.
“Our dream is that there is federal legislation harmonized at a worldwide level,” said Renee St. Denis, director of Americas Product Take Back at HP. “That’s probably a pipe dream, but we think federal legislation in the United States is probably — on some level — inevitable, because as states do their own thing, it’s really tough to comply.”
In California, electronic recycling is funded by waste recycling fees assessed to the customer, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2005. Retailers collect between $6 and $10 per device, based on size at the time of purchase, and the fees are sent to the State Board of Equalization quarterly. The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) administers the program and distributes the payments to recyclers to cover costs.
To be eligible to receive payment for recycling, recyclers must be approved by the CIWMB, a process that includes registering with the Department of Toxic Substances Control as a hazardous waste handler.
“It’s not like handling explosive and toxic corrosive chemicals,” said Chris Peck, CIWMB spokesman. “It’s under the rubric of what’s called universal waste, which has more general requirements for handling. But the department wants to know who’s handling the materials, and they have to be inspected.”
Maine’s law mandates that manufacturers pay for transporting and collecting electronic waste, with municipalities responsible for the physical collection and transportation to consolidation centers. The consolidation centers prepare the electronic waste for shipment to recycling centers, and ultimately must ensure that each device is attributed to a manufacturer so each manufacturer can be billed appropriately.
In Maryland, local government and manufacturers share financial responsibility. Counties pay for the entire recycling process, but they can acquire funding assistance through grants drawn from the State Recycling Trust Fund, which comes from a $5,000 fee assessed annually to each manufacturer. Maryland also advocates the establishment of manufacturer take-back programs, which can reduce annual payments to $500, but only after the first year’s full fee.
Some electronic manufacturers, such as HP, already provide their own recycling programs.
“We take old products apart that HP owns, refurbish them and use them to support customers who have the same thing,” she said. “It’s standard industry process to use used parts in support. It’s in the contractual terms.”
Reusing selective computer parts creates unusable leftovers, and St. Denis was charged with researching options for disposing of or recycling those leftovers. She approached Noranda, a Canadian mining company already recycling precious metals for HP, to ask if additional metals or other materials in computer electronics could be recycled.
After extensive testing and new equipment, Noranda further broke down HP’s e-waste into steel, aluminum, brass, zinc, nickel, plastic and glass.
Through research and active participation, St. Denis said HP developed a unique perspective on recycling policy issues.
“HP is positioned so we understand the operations side of [recycling], understand a lot of the customer side of it — what customers like and don’t like about various services. We know the values of the materials coming back so we can understand what the costs are going to be,” said St. Denis.
HP favors a manufacturer responsibility model to handle electronic waste, believing that manufacturers would manage the process like a business, and figure out alternatives to drive costs down and achieve set goals, according to St. Denis.
Directing responsibility at manufacturers motivates them to improve design to lower waste costs, said Jon Hinck, staff attorney of the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), the organization largely responsible for lobbying on behalf of Maine’s legislation and seeing it through to enactment.
“If you have a more manufacturer responsibility-based approach, manufacturers will bring the efficiencies that private interests bring to getting something done,” Hinck said.
He predicts, however, that some manufacturers will fight the manufacturer responsibility laws.
“Some of the opponents seem to feel — their lawyers and lobbyists feel — that anything that puts responsibility on them needs to be fought. I think that’s an American industry approach, which makes it hard to get good input from them, because if it means any responsibility at all, they’re against it,” said Hinck.
But the costs generated from the Maine legislation are not large for any manufacturer, Hinck said. As a result, he said, the fight is symbolic.
“Opponents don’t want Maine to work because other people might follow the model.”
Opponents of Maine’s model might consider California’s law — charging advanced recovery fees (ARFs) to consumers upon purchasing electronics — the solution.
Using the ARF model nationwide might be a good thing if the fees were used efficiently, said St. Denis, but she expressed concern that the government lacks the efficiencies private interests bring to the table.
California collected an estimated $31 million via the electronic waste recycling program from its inception in January 2005 through July, according to Peck. The state pays out 48 cents per pound to recyclers that are approved to participate and can provide the documentation proving that the devices originated in California.
These recyclers are paid too much money, according to St. Denis, who said HP recycles at an average rate of 20 cents per pound, saving consumers money. She also said administering fees requires a lot of red tape and additional government support staff.
“I’m not saying government shouldn’t raise money, but let’s be honest about what they’re doing: taxing our products to raise money that’s probably going to be used ultimately for something else.”
For instance, California doesn’t have enough people to ensure that recyclers are doing their job the way they’re contracted to, St. Denis said.
“They don’t have a way to make sure CRTs are actually recycled in California and not exported to a third-world country where the raw material value versus the labor cost is so much lower.”>/p>
Furthermore, St. Denis said many recycling centers in California — and some municipalities — are still charging customers to drop off electronic waste because there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.
“To be a part of the system that the state set up, recyclers are required to offer free take-back once per year, and the requirement doesn’t say anything about how big the event has to be, or what kind of advertising or reach you have to have,” said St. Denis. “The system is flawed because it doesn’t police itself.”
Peck admits participating collectors and recyclers aren’t required to always take electronic waste for free, especially if their recycling costs exceed the state’s reimbursement. Peck also said consumers are encouraged to shop around to determine when recyclers might have free take-back events.
California’s approach is so new that there’s still a learning curve, Peck said.
“We have only had about nine months of implementation in California, so to say that it’s the way to go is perhaps a little premature,” he said. “There are critics of the system, and there are also people who really like what we’re doing in California. As the administering agency, we’re just trying to make it work — which it seems to be doing so far.”
<strongAs for criticism of California’s consumer responsibility model, Gerald Davis, chairman of the board at Goodwill, observed that there’s no way to remove consumers from the financial equation — even with manufacturer responsibility.
“If you’re going to put costs on the manufacturer, you are in essence putting them on the consumer because [manufacturers] just pass them on,” Davis said.
HP doesn’t deny that consumers must bear the costs, said St. Denis.
“Ultimately every time someone buys from us, they’re paying for our costs — we’re not under any misconceptions that customers aren’t going to pay,” she said. “The question for us is, ‘How much should the customers pay?'”
Despite apparently inevitable consumer responsibility, charging ARFs in Maine could financially jeopardize retailers in the state, said Hinck.
“In looking at the possibility of doing an advanced recovery fee approach, one problem particular to Maine is, if we were to put ARFs on products and neighboring states — notably New Hampshire — did not, retailers in Maine would take a hit,” Hinck said.
In other words, Maine retailers could lose business to retailers in neighboring states.
Although federal legislation could address this issue, Hinck said legislators in Maine are not in support of an ARF approach at a national level.
As states enact their own laws, global manufacturers could face confusing and problematic regulations. But as landfills throughout the nation continue to ban electronic equipment, decisions must be made.
There are a few concerns to consider. For example, who would pay for orphan electronic equipment manufactured by organizations no longer in business? What about manufacturers who have been in business for a long time and have more equipment coming down the pipeline? The costs would certainly be more substantial for them.
“Any program we talk about is going to have details that need to be worked out and negotiated, so I don’t want anyone to think that we say manufacturer responsibility and lickety-split, it’s done,” said St. Denis.
Goodwill has recently joined the bipartisan Congressional E-Waste Working Group, which consists of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and stakeholders, who discuss end-of-life management solutions that are mutually beneficial to all, said Davis.
“I’m optimistically pleased that the government seems to understand that nonprofits are being affected by this by inviting us to testify and having us in the group,” he said.
The group brings people from different sectors together, all of whom have different concerns.
“The manufacturer sees this entirely differently than a consumer advocate or a charity,” Davis said. “But we’ve all got to play in the same sandbox.”
The goal is to educate members of Congress and their staff about the issues surrounding e-waste management and disposal, and to explore the role the federal government might play in regulating electronic waste, said Jay Hutchins, federal affairs manager of Goodwill.
“We are seeing more and more stakeholders express concern with a patchwork solution of each state adopting its own set of laws,” Hutchins said. “It’s too early to tell if there is one popular approach, but people are concerned about what will happen as each state adopts its own regulation.”