E-Waste Management Presents Challenges, Opportunities

Published August 1, 2006

At the end of the fast-paced road of electronic innovation lies a mountain of electronic waste, or “E-waste.”

Electrical equipment waste is growing three times faster than total municipal solid waste (MSW). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates electronics comprise somewhere between 1 percent and 4 percent of the MSW stream–the high-end estimate means approximately 10 million tons of E-waste is disposed annually.

A lot of end-of-life electronics are neither disposed of nor recycled–much of it, especially old PCs, presently sits in storage in homes, offices, and warehouses. Some people either put an item aside and forget about it, or harbor privacy concerns and are reluctant to part with it. Others simply don’t want to pay recycling fees or don’t know what to do with these objects. This further complicates the issue of E-waste management because recyclers cannot gain access to the valuable resources these electronics contain.

The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates almost 100 million computers and monitors become obsolete annually, and about 130 million mobile phones are discarded. The International Association of Electronics Recyclers estimates 20 million televisions become obsolete each year. According to EPA, however, last year only about 10 million monitors and televisions and 15 million computers showed up in landfills and recycling centers.

E-Waste Impacts

Many end-of-life electronics items contain valuable elements such as gold, silver, and platinum. Unfortunately, E-waste can also contain potentially harmful substances such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. Regardless of whether its elements are valuable or potentially hazardous, handling and recovery of E-waste can be a costly undertaking. These considerations have led to intense debate about how E-waste can best be managed.

While there is no widespread indication of elevated levels of heavy metals in leachate (a liquid formed when rainwater enters a landfill and mixes with materials in the landfill) collected at well-designed landfills, there is cause for concern about long-term landfill performance. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in televisions and computer monitors contain about four pounds of lead apiece. Cell phone circuitry, batteries, and liquid crystal displays contain heavy metals.

There are also concerns about landfill toxins such as mercury, problematic levels of emissions from E-waste incineration, and exposure problems arising from poorly designed E-waste recovery and recycling operations. High labor and environmental control cost requirements are economic disincentives to E-waste recycling domestically. As a result, much E-waste recycling has shifted to overseas operations where labor costs and compliance requirements are lower.

Legislative Activity

Overseas, the Basel Convention directs transport, control, and disposal of hazardous materials, including E-waste, and a European Union (EU) Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), which took effect July 1, 2006, establishes new requirements for E-waste collection, treatment, recycling, and recovery. WEEE directs electronics manufacturers to take back their products for recycling. Another EU directive, Restrictions on Hazardous Substances, sets maximum concentrations for certain chemicals in products ranging from computers to refrigerators.

To comply with these rules, multinational firms wishing to access EU markets have had to revise product designs and business models. Other countries, notably China, are preparing similar legislation.

Domestically, three states have passed E-waste legislation. Half of the remaining states are considering enacting comparable measures.

In California, E-waste legislation that took effect February 9, 2006 sets an advanced recovery fee (ARF) of $6-$10 on each electronic item purchased within the state. The revenue generated by the ARF will be used to encourage recycling and offset program costs, including actual recycling efforts, landfill costs, and administrative costs.

Maine legislation that has taken effect in various stages beginning January 1, 2005 and will be fully implemented January 1, 2007 focuses on manufacturers and establishes an extended producer responsibility (EPR) program. Under EPR, any manufacturer selling products within Maine must assure take-back and management services at the end-of-life of the electronic product and is financially responsible for transporting and recycling its products and a portion of the legacy waste existing in the state.

In Maryland a trust fund has been created to finance local recycling efforts. The plan requires most computer manufacturers to pay $5,000 per year to the Maryland State Recycling Trust Fund, while manufacturers who operate an approved take-back program are required to pay only $500.

Federal Scrutiny

If every state adopts a different program, programmatic inefficiencies and business inefficiencies will arise owing to the introduction of overlapping and possibly discordant rules and regulations governing E-waste management.

As a result, Congress and EPA are under increasing pressure to develop a nationwide program that preempts state initiatives and provides national uniformity for E-waste management. Current statutory authority does not provide a clear EPA mandate. Nonetheless, EPA is developing CRT disposal regulations and has adopted some voluntary E-waste guidelines.

Last year, a congressional E-waste working group was formed, and at least three separate E-waste bills were introduced in Congress. This year Sen. Jim Talent (R-MO) is pressing a plan to give consumers $15 tax breaks for recycling old computers.

William L. Kovacs ([email protected]) is vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Environment, Technology, & Regulatory Affairs Division.