Managing Electronic Waste: The California Approach

Article excerpt


Recently there has been discussion among environmental health practitioners regarding the mounting volume of electronic waste (e-waste) entering the solid waste stream and the potential impacts on human health and the environment. Consisting of unwanted computers, monitors, televisions, and a variety of other devices, electronic waste frequently contains many toxic chemicals that when inappropriately managed may cause detrimental environmental exposure. For example, the cathode ray tube (CRT) of television sets and computer monitors contains lead. The lead levels in many CRTs exceed federal (and California) standards for hazardous waste. In a 1999 study conducted at the State University of Florida, researchers determined that color CRTs, when subjected to regulatory tests for hazardous waste, leached out 18.5 milligrams of lead per liter (Musson, Jang, Townsend & Chung, 1999), exceeding the 5 milligrams regulatory threshold for hazardous waste.

The primary concern is that if CRTs are exposed to conditions in local landfills, lead contamination of soil and groundwater may occur. Through emergency regulations finalized in February 2003, the California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) placed into regulatory guidance a complete ban on municipal landfill disposal of CRTs. This ban includes agents normally excluded from regulation, such as households and exempt generators. It was determined that e-waste more appropriately belonged in a world of reduced management standards addressed by the concept of "universal waste."

The Universal Waste Paradigm

Certain large-volume waste streams that technically meet the definition of hazardous waste have traditionally been disposed of in municipal landfills. These disposal sites are not designed to accept and store hazardous waste. In order to control the disposal of these wastes, on February 11, 1993, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) proposed new streamlined hazardous waste management regulations governing these materials (Standards for Universal Waste Management, 1995), which are known as universal waste. U.S. EPA believed that Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations for hazardous waste management would impede collection and recycling campaigns.

The Universal Waste Rule was intended to accomplish two main goals: first, to encourage recycling and discourage disposal of widely generated hazardous wastes, and second, to provide incentives for the collection of the unregulated portions of these waste streams and manage those unregulated positions using the same systems developed for the regulated portion, thereby removing these unregulated portions from municipal waste sites (Standards for Universal Waste Management, 1995).

In March 2000, the state of California adopted an Emergency Universal Waste Rule (Cal-UWR) (California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Toxic Substances Control, 2003). Prior to adoption of the Cal-UWR, wastes not included in the federal UWR had to be managed as fully hazardous waste. Hazardous waste designation forces the generator (unless exempt) to file for a U.S. EPA identification number, limits storage time, necessitates usage of a registered transporter, and restricts disposal to a permitted hazardous waste facility. These stringent rules can be burdensome and place a heavy financial load on generators of the waste.

In addition, these restrictive standards frequently do not foster proper, environmentally sound disposal practices among members of the general public. When faced with strict management controls on common items, people may resort to mismanagement through disposal in municipal-waste landfills or, worse, dumping of wastes by the side of the road. This practice may pose a threat to human health and the environment. With this concern in mind, the California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Toxic Substances Control promulgated UWR to control the disposal of CRTs in a less severe fashion. …