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Who Pays for E-Waste?

Washington state sticks manufacturers with recycling tab

4 min read

A bill that took effect on 1 July makes manufacturers—not consumers, not the government—responsible for the costs of recycling old electronics ­equipment in the state of Washington. This makes Washington the fourth U.S. state to enact some form of eâ''waste ­legislation, and the fourth to go its own way in choosing who pays for what. But Washington’s is by far the most ­comprehensive law, covering the ­collection, transportation, and recycling of computers, monitors, and TVs from consumers, small businesses, schools, small government entities, and charities [see photo, " "].

The various state and international schemes mandated to recover and recycle electronic waste run the full gamut of potential models. At one extreme, the European Union enacted legislation in 2002 that passes along the entire cost to the manufacturers (an approach known as the producer responsibility model); at the other extreme, California hands the entire cost to consumers (the advance recovery fee, or ARF, model). The U.S. state of New Hampshire bans certain products from landfills but does not prescribe what to do with them, while in Japan, manufacturers are responsible for taking back obsolete electronics but can charge consumers recycling fees.

Note, however, that the term ­”producer responsibility” does not refer only to the extreme European model. In Taiwan, the government handles collection and recycling, but manufacturers pay the bill. In the U.S. state of Maine, producers pay for recycling and some collection costs, while local governments cover the rest of the collection costs. Japanese manufacturers can charge consumers take-back fees to cover their costs but are responsible for collection and recycling.

The Washington Statute , which the governor signed into law last March and which must be ready for implementation by 2009, is perhaps closest in spirit and detail to Europe’s Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Its enactment has greatly pleased environmentalists and consumer advocates. ”It is the strongest [U.S.] law so far [in that it] establishes that manufacturers have responsibility for both collecting and recycling their products,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Computer TakeBack Campaign, a U.S. national coalition of groups advocating computer recycling. ”That is a huge concept.”

The U.S. consumer electronics industry, however, is not so pleased by the legislation. ”The vast majority of consumer electronics manufacturers prefer the ARF model,” says Kristina Taylor, mana­ger for environmental and state policy communications for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), an alliance of some 2000 consumer electronics companies, based in Arlington, Va.

Kyle believes it wrong not to include the producer in the take-back loop. Producer responsibility is important, because forcing companies to pay for recycling gives them an incentive to make future products easier to recycle, in terms of being less toxic and simpler to disassemble, she says. ”If we don’t deal with how these things are designed and built on the front end,” Kyle continues, ”we will never get electronics recycling ahead of the curve. There is just too much coming into the waste stream, too fast.”

But Taylor, explaining the CEA’s objections, argues that making the producer responsible creates an unfair market advantage for new companies, which do not have to fund the recycling of older products out of revenues from current products and therefore can cut prices. Another objection is that the producer responsibility laws in place today require current manufacturers to share the cost of recycling orphaned products, that is, products discarded after their manufacturers have gone out of business. That, says Taylor, isn’t fair.

Taylor’s association argues that charging consumers directly for recycling will, in the long run, cost them less than if they are paying indirectly through higher product prices. A point-of-sale fee, she suggests, also provides an opportunity for educating consumers about responsible recycling.

The Consumer Electronics Association opposed the Washington state bill in particular, says Taylor, because it feels ”that the conflicting ad hoc approaches that the states are taking impose unnecessary burdens on companies and consumers.” The association would prefer the U.S. government to pass national legislation governing electronics recycling. While several such bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress over the years, none shows signs of moving forward.

Consumer electronics companies in the United States, in fact, are not united in opposition to the producer responsibility model. Hewlett-Packard Co., in Palo Alto, Calif., a member of the association, is a leading supporter of producer take-back. Dell Inc., in Round Rock, Texas, also a member, has not lobbied on either side of the issue. Caroline Dietz, a Dell spokesperson, explains that Dell favors a market-driven rather than a legislative approach.

Dell will cover all the costs of recycling up to 22 kilograms of used computer gear from anyone purchasing one of its products new; it charges $10 for the same service without a computer purchase. The company is also trying various pilot projects, including a partnership with Goodwill Industries International Inc., in Rockville, Md., that allows consumers to drop off used computer equipment at Goodwill locations free of charge for reuse or recycling. Apple Computer Inc., in Cupertino, Calif., announced in April that it will offer customers who buy new Macs free take-back and recycling of their old computers.

The split, essentially, is between the companies that manufacture televisions and those that don’t, says Kyle, from the TakeBack Campaign. It’s not hard to figure out why. Paul O’Donovan, principal research analyst with Gartner Inc., in Egham, England, says that in recent years computer manufacturers have made their products more and more environmentally benign—removing lead solder and using LCDs for monitors instead of CRTs. Because the life cycle of a computer is so short, typically three years, most computers that will be recycled in the future are these relatively harmless systems. Meanwhile, the normal life of a television is 7 to 10 years, with many consumers still hanging on to 15- or 20-year-old televisions. These old CRT TVs have ”an awful lot of horrible things in them,” says O’Donovan, so they are expensive to recycle safely.

However responsibility is assigned, the problem is urgent. In February 2009, U.S. TV broadcasters will stop analog transmissions, instantly making more than 100 million televisions obsolete. While consumers can buy converters so these old televisions can receive the new digital transmissions, it is likely, says Kyle, that a vast number of consumers will simply decide that their old televisions are just not worth upgrading. ”We expect a significant spike in the number of TVs that enter the waste stream just before and right after the conversion to digital television,” says Kyle.

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