American Recycler, October 2010
By Mike Breslin
How to responsibly recycle electronic devices is a perplexing problem for everyone, especially state lawmakers and regulators. The breakneck pace of innovation in electronics technology creates a constant demand for newer and faster products and applications. Being the first to market with new or better products is a life or death competitive reality for manufacturers which is driving shorter and shorter times for model introductions. At the same time the expanding demand for electric devices is penetrating virtually every realm of modern life and challenging recyclers and regulators across the country.
Even so, keep e-waste in perspective. It only represents approximately 1 to 3 percent of the solid waste stream and industry experts estimate that 10 to 18 percent of the material is currently being captured and recycled. The EPA estimates 13 percent is recycled.
|Manual dismantling plays a large role on the production line of Total Reclaim in Seattle, Washington|
Obviously, more needs to be done simply because while the stream is comparatively small it is potentially dangerous – containing hazardous lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium and polyvinyl chlorides, among others, substances that have toxicological effects that can cause brain damage, kidney disease, mutations and cancers if not handled properly.
Moreover, throwing a majority of e-wastes into the trash is a total misuse of an otherwise valuable resource containing a wealth of reusable materials.
There is no omnibus federal law covering electronic wastes, although aspects such as the export of CRTs (cathode rays tubes) and other hazardous wastes like mercury and PCBs are regulated by the EPA. Over the years several comprehensive e-waste bills have been introduced in Congress, but none have passed, leaving each state to frame its own laws.
In August, at a meeting of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation in Guanajuato, Mexico, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson released a memo on why e-waste has become a top concern for the administration. It said, in part, “EPA recognizes this urgent concern and will work with international partners to address the issues of e-waste. In the near-term, EPA will focus on ways to improve the design, production, handling, reuse, recycling, exporting and disposal of electronics.”
State regulations governing the disposal of e-waste are literally all over the map and vary by state, the type of products classified and the designated covered entities such as households, businesses, government or non-profits. Only 16 states ban various classes of electronic waste from landfills. More inclusive landfill bans like in California cover desktop and laptop computers, CRT TV and computer monitors and flat panel TV and computer monitors over four-inches diagonally and printers. One of the least restrictive landfill laws is in Minnesota where only CRT TVs and computer monitors are banned.
Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) explained the state of “producer responsibility” laws where the manufacturer of the electronic item is responsible for recycling. “23 states have e-waste laws, 22 of which use the producer responsibility model and three of those were passed this year. There are other states that made it very far through the legislative cycle this spring that may come to fruition in the fall. The state producer responsibility laws in some way or another ultimately require that the manufacturers are financially responsible for end of life management of the covered entities and products. How they get there varies radically, but probably the only consistent element is that household generated computer monitors and televisions are covered.”
California is the only state that currently has an advanced-recovery fee law where the consumer is charged a fee at the point-of-sale that goes into a state fund used to reimburse processors for recycling.
In June, New York State legislators unexpectedly passed one of the most stringent state e-waste laws. “It was going nowhere for a number of years and then very abruptly a law that was under consideration was passed practically overnight. It came as a surprise to most observers,” commented Rubinstein.
Under the new law all manufacturers that sell electronic equipment in the state must have a free, convenient e-waste recycling program in place by April 1, 2011. The law covers TVs, VCRs, DVDs, MP3 players, game consoles, fax machines, computers and peripherals such as monitors, keyboards, scanners and printers.
Based on each manufacturer’s market share of New York electronic sales, each will be required to reuse or recycle a certain amount of e-waste waste per year. Those who collect more waste than mandated receive recycling credits, which can be held, sold or traded. Those not collecting their share can be fined with proceeds going to state-funded recycling programs.
“Implementation details for the New York State law are still being worked out by state Department of Environmental Conservation staff, and the details of the manufacturer collection processes are not yet established. At this point, manufacturers have to register. The wide array of products regulated under the law make it particularly challenging for the manufacturers,” said Rubinstein. After January 1, 2015 it will be illegal for individuals to dispose of electronic waste in the trash or in landfills.
As a result of e-waste state laws on the books and the likelihood of more states mandating them, the United States e-waste recycling industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Established recyclers have grown significantly both in size and sophistication of technology and new companies are seizing a promising business opportunity.
Each state has laws governing the disposal of hazardous wastes emanating from e-wastes such as Freon, PCBs and mercury. Recyclers handling such materials must be certified at the state level and are subject to rigorous inspections. ”Recently, after many years of people wanting it, there are now two independent, third-party certification programs available to companies involved in e-scrap recycling that vouches for the high quality of their environmental performance,” said Rubinstein. “That’s incredibly exciting and an opportunity to level-out the playing field and create an opportunity for decision makers to have a clearer sense of choosing companies that are engaging in the best management practices.”
One certification program is Responsible Recycling (R2) Practices, developed under leadership of the EPA over many years, which was certified in late 2009 by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has added another opportunity for certification by pairing R2 with RIOS; the R2/RIOS standard. The other certification program is e-Stewards, developed through the Basel Action Network.
|Recovered plastics are baled and readied for recycling.|
In July, ISRI announced that it is becoming the first official sponsor of the State Electronics Challenge (SEC), a voluntary program focused on encouraging state, regional and local governments, schools and other public entities to responsibly recycle outdated and obsolete electronics. The SEC initiative starts with promoting the purchase of greener electronics to reduce their environmental impact during use and manage responsible disposal. In making the announcement, ISRI president Robin Wiener stated, “ISRI, as the largest organization of responsible electronic recyclers in the world, is a logical partner to work with the vast numbers of regional, state, and local governments to address the growing volumes of discarded electronics. ISRI and the R2/RIOS program offer state, local and regional governments real, workable solutions that they can easily embrace and incorporate into their environmental stewardship program.”
The R2 certification process covers a range of e-wastes including computers, peripherals, cell phones and televisions, and specially “focused materials” like CRTs, circuit boards, batteries, mercury and PCBs. In practice, it requires e-waste processors to have an environmental, health and safety management system in place, one that prefers reuse and recycling over disposal and complies with federal, state and local disposal laws, and ensures that exported materials are legal.
SEC is modeled after the Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC) created by the EPA and the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive. The SEC is administered by the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC).
NERC, which was established 22 years ago, started SEC in 2006 through an EPA grant; working with the FEC, state and local agencies and non-federal partners as a pilot program in 10 northeastern states. “We are currently in 16 states, have 45 participating partners and are optimistic we will be in 22 states by this fall. Last fall we expanded into six Rocky Mountain States and anticipate another EPA grant to get into the Great Lake States this fall. We also are trying to secure more private funding like that from ISRI to make the program a national one,” said Rubinstein.
Volunteer initiatives like FEC and SEC aimed at decreasing the environmental footprint of computer assets and other electronic devices, extending product life and reuse and responsible recycling at end of life can go a long way towards controlling e-waste. These types of programs provide the education necessary to raise awareness of the problems of e-waste and curtail many of them through green procurement.
As major development in e-waste regulatory information occurred in January with the launch of new website, www.ecycleclearinghouse.org. It was established by the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC), a joint project of the National Center for Electronics Recycling and NERC. ERCC is a forum for coordination and information exchange among the state/local agencies that are implementing electronics recycling laws and all impacted stakeholders. The website contains a wealth of maps and information to navigate through the maze of state legislation, entities and products covered, landfill bans, state agency contacts, federal regulations, per capita collections, performance measures and the percent of populations covered by law.