The computer recycling bin

Agencies' approaches to recycling electronics are largely piecemeal

Think tank paper: Mandated Recycling of Electronics -- A Lose-Lose-Lose Proposition

Related Links

Experts estimate that U.S. businesses and consumers dumped more than 150 million tons of electronics equipment in 2004. To reduce such large-scale dumping and its environmental consequences, some lawmakers say the federal government should provide financial incentives for recycling such waste, perhaps even create a mandatory national electronics recycling program.

That could happen if Congress passes a bill that Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) introduced in March. The Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act would require federal executive agencies to remanufacture or recycle all display screens and system units that they buy and would offer tax credits to consumers and companies that do the same.

The bill would also direct the Environmental Protection Agency to calculate the costs and benefits of creating a national e-waste recycling program. Such a program would impose new regulations and would likely face opposition from the solid waste industry and its supporters.

A variety of programs exist now for making the federal government a better environmental citizen through electronics recycling, or e-cycling, but most of those programs are piecemeal and voluntary.

Through public awareness campaigns, for example, EPA officials have made some progress toward improving agencies' recycling efforts. But for the federal government to substantially reduce its electronics waste, as the Wyden-Talent bill proposes, agencies may need to make significant new expenditures. The Defense Department and General Services Administration, which profit from their electronics waste, are exceptions.

The federal government disposes of 10,000 computers a week, in addition to fax machines, printers, copiers, cell phones and handheld devices. Some of this electronics equipment winds up in landfills or overseas, where environmental standards are generally lower. Experts say that the mishandling of electronics waste releases toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and beryllium into the environment.

Concern about costs

Many agency officials view the upfront costs of recycling as a burden. Recycling involves additional expenditures for removing data from hard drives, transporting and inspecting equipment, and repackaging useful parts.

Federal agencies pay for e-cycling out of their existing budgets through a variety of specialized contracting programs, including one that just became available. Officials may be able to offset their recycling costs through a share-in-savings program in which agencies would share a portion of the proceeds of recycling with the contractor hired to dispose of the e-waste.

Liquidity Services, an EPA contractor, has agreed to cover all upfront costs for safely disposing of obsolete electronics and for refurbishing and remarketing electronics that can still be used. The share-in-savings program is open to all federal agencies, said Bill Angrick, the company's chairman and chief executive officer.

The company sells electronics items online, typically through auctions and marketplaces such as www.liquidation.com and www.govliquidation.com. Liquidity attracts potential customers by publishing digital photos of used equipment online and offering customers the option of inspecting the equipment firsthand at various storage sites.

EPA officials awarded a contract to Liquidity in December 2004 under the agency's Recycling Electronics and Asset Disposition program. Seven other companies hold governmentwide contracts under the same program.

Other voluntary federal efforts are under way to promote e-cycling. The interagency Office of the Federal Environmental Executive, whose mission is to promote sustainable environmental stewardship throughout the federal government, advises agencies on e-cycling. One of its programs, the Federal Electronics Challenge, assists federal agencies and federally owned facilities with buying "green" electronics products, reducing the environmental impact of electronics products during their use and disposing of obsolete electronics in an environmentally safe way.

Created in 2004, the program now includes participants from the Department of Health and Human Services Department, GSA, DOD and the Energy, Homeland Security and Transportation departments.

Making money e-cycling

Although e-cycling is generally viewed as an unpopular expense, some federal agencies make money on their electronics waste through a process known as "demanufacturing." Through its Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS), DOD uses remanufacturing to recycle 95 percent of its used electronics property.

Under contracts with three companies that sell reusable components — Global Investment Recovery, the NTC Group and MOLAM International — DOD's electronics waste is separated into metallic and nonmetallic scrap for recycling. DRMS officials say the companies use procedures that prevent hazardous metals from harming the environment.

DRMS has demanufactured about 165 million pounds of used electronics since February 1999, an inventory that includes televisions, computers and munitions. In fiscal 2003, DRMS paid contractors about $680,000 to process about 34 million pounds of used electronics. By fiscal 2004, DRMS was earning money — about $945,000 for nearly 27.8 million pounds of electronics waste.

Other federal agencies have managed to find creative ways to dispose of their electronics waste. Through online auctions, for example, GSA officials have generated $2.13 million from the sale of surplus, seized and forfeited electronics since 2001 when they began holding such auctions. They have auctioned electronic headsets, handsets, microphones and speakers, generators, computers, phonographs, radios and televisions.

NASA officials have used donations to schools to dispose of about 5,000 pieces of electronics equipment.

Questioning the problem

Despite environmentalists' support for mandated e-cycling, some critics of government regulation argue that laws for e-recycling and eco-friendly disposal would stifle innovation and force vendors to pass on the costs to customers. Dana Joel Gattuso, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a business-oriented think tank, recently released a report titled "Mandated Recycling of Electronics: A Lose-Lose-Lose Proposition."

Gattuso argues against what she describes as hysteria about electronics waste. "There's a lot of misinformation out there that's giving the impression that the e-waste situation is now a crisis," she said.

In the report, Gattuso blames eco-activists for common fallacies, including a belief that the nation is running out of landfills; that lead, mercury and heavy metals are contaminating the soil and water; and that the amount of e-waste is growing at an alarming rate.

Gattuso also asserts that no scientific evidence exists to prove that substances from e-waste in municipal landfills present a significant risk to human health or the environment.

EPA officials say that some environmentalists' views on the e-cycling situation are extreme. And agency officials have not taken a position on what solutions, other than voluntary partnerships, are necessary to increase e-cycling.

Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman, said that although EPA officials believe the United States should look for a better way to deal with e-waste than dumping it in landfills, they differ with some environmentalists on the degree to which they view modern municipal landfills as a serious environmental risk.

"We believe that municipal landfills designed and managed according to EPA's updated [1991] criteria for such landfills are protective, including for electronic waste," Kemery said. "Several studies over the years have shown that leachate from municipal landfills for most metals is at levels below the drinking water standards."

Kemery added that EPA officials think the e-waste issue is an important challenge for now and the future, but it is not a crisis.

California struggles with e-cycling law

Because it only went into effect Jan. 1, it's still too early to know if California's groundbreaking electronic waste recycling law will be a success, but it's at least keeping up with initial expectations.

The law, signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in September 2003, is intended to provide free and clean recycling of hazardous electronic waste for all the state's residents, paid for by an upfront fee that was attached at the beginning of the year to the price of all new computer monitors and televisions. The recycling fee is $6 for monitors measuring 4 inches to 15 inches, $8 for monitors measuring 15 inches to 35 inches, and $10 for monitors larger than 35 inches.

Revenue targets from these fees were set at about $31 million for the first six months, and they hit $15 million in the first quarter, "with some payments still straggling in," said Chris Peck, a spokesman for the California Integrated Waste Management Board. That provides some confidence that the $72 million in revenue projected for the 2005/2006 fiscal year is not out of line.

About 225 state-approved collectors are licensed to handle the e-waste. The board pays recyclers about 48 cents per pound for the material they recycle, and out of that, the recyclers are supposed to pay 20 cents per pound to the licensed handlers. Some e-waste handlers are charging the public additional fees to collect the monitors, although that service is supposed to be free. However, Peck said, the law doesn't mandate that handlers can't charge collection fees.

The board can change the initial recycling fee and payments to recyclers if necessary. The board is confident things will level off and Californians will get both the clean and free advantages the law intended, he said.

— Brian Robinson

Who's Fed 100-worthy?

Nominations are now open for the 2015 Federal 100 awards. Get the details and submit your picks!

Featured

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above