State-by-State E-Waste Legislation Misses the Big Picture

State-by-State E-Waste Legislation Misses the Big Picture

Electronics makers are feeling increasing pressure to institute equipment "takeback" programs. Lawmakers from both California and Massachusetts are moving on their own manufacturer takeback bills. In all, 26 states are considering no less than 52 bills that would force the issue of recycling one way or another.

Sound like progress? Think again. If states try to implement a patchwork of individual takeback laws, the results could be disastrous.

The problem is, many of these bills have not been thought through. There is a presumption that there are only a few computer "manufacturers" out there, and that there will magically be U.S. markets for all of the material generated. But if states truly want to require reporting and takeback of electronics items, they will have to locate all of the manufacturers. A large percentage of computers sold are "boxes" assembled by local computer firms. Moreover, the majority of electronics items and parts are made in Asia, so finding and forcing some of these far-flung companies to report and "take back" or pay fees could be nearly impossible.

Most of the bills focus on keeping cathode ray tubes (CRTs) out of landfills. In fact, four states -- California. Massachusetts, Maine and Minnesota -- have now banned CRTs from landfills. Yet while no one wants the leaded glass in incinerators or landfills, recyclers say that within a few years, there may not be any U.S. markets for recycled CRT glass. Since Dow Corning is closing its Pennsylvania leaded glass plant, there are only four U.S. manufacturers are left, and they are having a difficult time competing with cheap Chinese imports.

A number of the state bills would ban exports of used electronics unless the receiving country has comparable working conditions to the U.S. There will have to be some exports of electronics or components to Asia, because that is where electronics are now made.

But China's recent ban on imports of scrap electronics has not stopped the flow of old electronics to illegal operations because they seem to get in "underground.” Instead, the policy has stopped the critical feedstock for legitimate Chinese recyclers, and there are no opportunities for low income Chinese people to obtain refurbished computers.

Many more state bills would ban all heavy metals, brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride in electronics, with no exemptions. These are more stringent than the European Union RoHS directive, which has exemptions.

While there is no argument that lead and mercury should be phased out of products when feasible, there is little evidence that today's electronics are leaching heavy metals in landfills. A European study found more lead in the environment from fishing sinkers than lead solder in circuit boards. Other technical reports cite concern that the expensive lead solder replacements may have worse environmental attributes, and may be more difficult to recycle. A more recent study from the High Density Packaging User Group found that there was no cadmium, chromium VI or mercury used in today's circuit boards, contrary to estimates from a 1998 study widely quoted in the media.

Computer manufacturers do have a role to play. Computers need to be designed for upgradability, not obsolescence. Long life would mean less waste. In this economy, small businesses cannot afford to replace their computers every two years.

The big issue, however, is not toxicity or whether retailers can take back old units but rather how we as a nation deal with the outdated electronics equipment piling up in people's garages. There are hundreds of millions of old computers, TV, printers out there in storage. That's going to take cooperation of government and industry to cope with. No one has a clear handle on the volume or toxicity -- and no one wants to foot the bill.

Consumers are now up to their ears in piles of e-junk collecting in their garages and basements. Without a coherent national plan, they will be stuck paying for needlessly complex recycling systems, with very little environmental benefit.

Michele Raymond is head of Raymond Communications, publisher of SRLU and Recycling Laws International. The company's in-depth report "Electronics Recycling: What to Expect from Global Mandates" will be updated in August. Its backgrounder on e-waste is available online.