How do e-waste recycling laws work?

With planned obsolescence, it's no surprise the world's drowning in e-waste.
With planned obsolescence, it's no surprise the world's drowning in e-waste.
Jonathan Kingston/Aurora/­Getty Images

­There are about­ 24 electronic products in the average American household, but if you're like many folks, you also have a stockpile of obsolete electronics stashed in a closet because you don't know how or where to get rid of them [source: EPA]. This is your electronic waste, or e-waste, which generally includes any discarded consumer or business electronic equipment, such as old or broken televisions, VCRs and DVD players, computers and monitors, game consoles, stereos and cell phones.

Every year, 20 to 50 million tons (18 to 45 million metric tons) of e-waste is generated [source: Greenpeace]. Although you may be tempted to throw your broken VCR in with your everyday garbage, e-waste shouldn't be tossed into the regular trash because many of electronic products contain toxic or potentially dangerous substances. Hazardous waste requires special handling. Common hazards in e-waste are mercury, which is used in flat panel monitors; lead, used in TV and computer cathode ray tubes; brominated flame retardants, which are used in plastic cases and cables; and cadmium, which was used in older rechargeable batteries [source: EPA].

­E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams around the world. In 2004, there were 183 million computers sold globally; by 2010, it's estimated there will be 716 million new computers in use. With an average life span of just two years, that'll be a lot of computers headed for landfills in the near future [source: Greenpeace]. That's where e-waste recycling laws come into play.

To help keep e-waste out of ­landfills, incinerators and your closet, nations, as well as state and local governments are developing legislation to make sure e-waste is handled properly (sent to permitted treatment, storage and disposal facilities). Proposed laws aim to guarantee that new products are designed­ and manufactured with fewer toxic materials.

­E-waste recycling laws are still in their infancy and generally fall into two types: producer take-back and advance recovery fee programs. Let's look at the details and differences of these programs, the types of laws in place, as well as how the golden rule of reduce, reuse and recycle can also help manage e-waste.

Types of E-Waste Recycling Laws

Recycling programs, like this one for small electronic devices at Staples, encourage shoppers to empty their junk drawers of old phones and pagers.
Recycling programs, like this one for small electronic devices at Staples, encourage shoppers to empty their junk drawers of old phones and pagers.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

­Ove­r the last 30 years, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) has governed what Americans do with hazardous solid waste. But since e-waste disposal wasn't then the looming problem it is now, the law falls short.

Laws differ from country to country, and within the United States they differ from state to state -- that is, when a state actually has an e-waste recycling law. While the adoption of disposal laws is good, different laws in different states confuse consumers, retailers and manufacturers.

E-waste recycling laws generally employ one of two types of progams: producer take-back and advance recovery fee programs.

Under producer take-back programs (also called extended producer responsibility), manufacturers are responsible for taking back discarded electronics and for properly recycling them. Proper recycling means collecting e-waste either in the manufacturer's own take-back program or in partnership with certified collection and recycling organizations. It doesn't mean shipping the waste to developing countries where it's out of sight, out of mind. Because such programs make manufacturers accountable for recycling their old products, take-backs also encourage companies to design products that use fewer toxic substances. Take-back programs are popular in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the European Union. In 2002, the EU enacted the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives, which require electronics manufacturers to manage their own e-waste and reduce their use of toxic chemicals. In the United States, few states have passed such e-waste recycling laws.

Advance recovery fee (ARF) programs shift the recycling burden from the manufacturer to the consumer. Under this type of legislation, when you buy, let's say, a new flat screen TV, you pay a nonrefundable recycling fee of anywhere from about $4 to $12 [source: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition]. This model is used currently in California. ARF programs are criticized because taxpayers pay for the associated collection, recycling and disposal fees of e-waste, while no incentives entice manufacturers to reduce their use of hazardous materials.

Would a national bill be a better solution? In 2005, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives along with the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Environmental Protection Agency (­EPA), Department of Commerce (DOC) and representatives from the consumer electronics industry established the Congressional E-Waste Working Group, to debate, educate and draft legislation that would establish national standards to reduce and recycle e-waste.

­While the details are being hammered out, what can we do about our­ closet full of old equipment? Follow the golden rule: Reduce, reuse and recycle. Keep your current electronics tip-top with routine maintenance and donate or sell your old but still working gear. The EPA and the consumer electronics industry sponsor a program called Plug-In to eCycling to make it easier to donate and recycle electronics at local, regional and national collection and recycling facilities. In 2007, the program recycled or reused more than 47 million pounds (21 million kilograms) of computers, cell phones and televisions and saved greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 24,000 cars [source: EPA].

And anything that's just not able to be repaired or too old to be sold? Recycling these devices can recover metals, plastics and glass for reuse in new products. Earth 911 helps you find recycling centers near you.

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More Great Links

Sources

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