Business sector, states seek e-cycling solutions

It has shaken up the electronics sector and could affect hundreds of millions of consumers and businesses in the United States. “It” is the creation of a funding system to pay for the collection and recycling of electronic waste.

Lawmakers are watching the results of several e-cycling business models, trying to arrive at a uniform, nationwide approach to the growing problem. The major obstacle blocking consensus is the question of who should manage e-cycling — the government or industry?

A bipartisan congressional E-Waste Working Group held a forum in September. The event brought together electronics retailers, recyclers, environmental groups and state officials to discuss ways to find a single solution for the efficient and environmentally sound disposal of obsolete electronics.

Small-scale models currently in operation include California’s advanced recycling-fee program; Maine’s government-managed, manufacturer-financed program; and the manufacturer-responsibility approach that is being promoted by many electronics companies.

California’s system is the most established statewide program, dating back to January 2005. The system recycled nearly 65 million pounds of discarded TVs and computer monitors in the first year of operation, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

Under state law, retailers must collect a recycling fee from consumers at the point of sale for certain electronics, including CRTcomputer monitors, CRT TV displays, laptop computers and LCD desktop computers.

Retailers then remit the fees to the state, retaining 3 percent as reimbursement for the costs associated with administering the fees. Consumer recycling fees range from $6 to $10, based on the screen size of the device.

The state government then distributes the funds among California’s municipalities, which are responsible for organizing local recycling systems with companies that meet the state’s e-waste environmental regulations.

Some participating collection and recycling companies in California are urging every state to replicate this government-controlled model — and quickly.

“Nobody is saying it’s perfect, but it’s better than any other system that’s in the states right now,” said John Shegerian, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Electronic Recyclers, based in Fresno, Calif. “We can always refine it.”

California has posted a centralized database of approved collectors and recyclers on its Web site. The list is designed to allow consumers to dispose of their electronics easily and safely. If people do not dispose of electronic equipment properly, authorities warn, they are wasting valuable materials for recycling and releasing hazardous materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium into the environment.

Shegerian said he believes state governments are better situated than the federal government to establish and operate a uniform e-cycling program.

“I don’t think there is time under the couple years left in this administration to come to a consensus,” Shegerian said. “I believe that the states will move themselves because they are smaller, more nimble. Either the federal government is going to recognize the e-waste tsunami that’s upon us now, or the states are going to take the bull by the horns…and figure out a solution.”

Some local California government officials praise the e-cycling law for institutionalizing the computer recycling business.

Before 2005, salvage companies would send devices to India or China, where environmental standards are generally lower, said Rod Miller, a senior environmental specialist in the Hazardous Materials Division for the city of Folsom, Calif.

He said the state program has worked for the California community, but he added that a more viable solution for the country may be a manufacturer-driven model, where the computer maker is responsible for e-cycling its own products.

Miller conceded that differences among the states’ legislative processes and oversight could complicate the financing of such projects.

“On a national level, the producer-responsibility model may actually work better — or a hybrid of both,” he said.

Maine’s system may fit the bill nationally but it is too early to tell. Under an e-waste law that became effective in January 2006, municipalities are responsible for implementing a system that uses authorized consolidation facilities to safely recycle all household-generated waste from computers and TVs. Manufacturers are responsible for the costs associated with the operation.

As a result of the new law, the state recycled 1.3 million pounds of computers between mid-January and the end of June, said Carole Cifrino, an environmental specialist at Maine’s Solid Waste Management Division of the Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management.

Giant computer maker Dell supports a similar model in which manufacturers — either directly or through a consortium — administer e-waste collection as part of the sale of their products, said Tod Arbogast, head of Dell’s sustainable business group. But he has criticisms of California’s and Maine’s programs.

He said California’s model does not build in any incentives for manufacturers to design environmentally sustainable computers and Maine’s program does not ensure the highest standards for collection and recycling.

Arbogast said the private sector is best positioned to oversee the collection, recycling and design of electronic products. He is against any legislation that includes fees or creates a new government infrastructure for e-cycling.

Currently, Dell provides free recycling with every Dell purchase and for any brand of computer with the purchase of a new Dell. In fiscal 2006, Dell recovered nearly 40,000 tons of products.

“We would prefer that Maine give an option to manufacturers to either utilize the infrastructure that Maine has put in place or put in place an alternative model for collection,” such as Dell’s, Arbogast said.

Ultimately, experts say, it is the consumer who pays for the costs associated with collection and recycling — under any model — so the consumer should have access to the most trustworthy and effortless system possible.

But the computer industry is divided on the issue of financing.

Richard Goss, senior director of environmental affairs at the Electronics Industry Alliance, said EIA members hold very different opinions about who should supervise e-cycling.

“We as an industry would like nothing more than to get this resolved once and for all,” he said. But, “the financing issue is really the sticking point.”

“Recycling is an absolute cost. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be incurred each year to cover these payments,” Goss said.

Goss added that the principle of e-cycling is predicated on the belief that consumers are willing to participate in recycling efforts, but consumers won’t cooperate if the system is too cumbersome or costly.

Lawmakers neutral on e-cycling governanceThe bipartisan congressional E-Waste Working Group held a forum Sept. 13 for electronics retailers, recyclers, environmental groups and state officials in an attempt to foster a consensus on a single solution for the disposal of obsolete electronics products, such as laptop computers and computer screens.

Currently, however, lawmakers are not taking sides; instead, they are pushing for more collaborative discussions on the subject.

The working group, formed in 2005, includes Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).

Slaughter has introduced legislation that closely mirrors the approach taken by California, but she is “not wedded to her legislation,” said her spokesman, John Santore.

Under Slaughter’s plan, consumers would pay a flat fee when they purchasea TV or computer. The money would then be funneled to a federal agency that would use it for grants to municipalities for local e-cycling operations.

“A big reason Ms. Slaughter formed the E-Waste Working Group to begin with was because industry is split on whether a fee at point of sale is efficient, both for the manufacturer and the government,” Santore said.

“The financing mechanism is the elephant in the room,” he added. “We need to reach a compromise on this issue before we can get comprehensive federal legislation through Congress. Rep. Slaughter and the other members of the bipartisan E-Waste Working Group simply want to find the efficient and effective model for recycling e-waste.”

The working group believes that Congress and the federal government should also experiment with various systems for handling government-produced e-waste, he said.

In late 2005, the group introduced a sense of Congress resolution urging top lawmakers and other legislative branch offices to lead by example and implement a coordinated program for e-cycling products used on Capitol Hill.

“This working group has focused on developing policy that supports a hybrid program, taking into account the best models implemented by the private sector and government entities,” Bono said.

“I am hopeful that we can create a streamlined policy that raises the standard to ensure accountability for proper e-waste disposal,” she added.

— Aliya Sternstein

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