Where Do All the Old Models Go? State and Federal Governments, along with Industry, Are Trying to Manage the Flood of Electronic Waste

Article excerpt

As the digital future becomes more and more a reality it leaves in its wake the old, the obsolete and the orphaned.

With each new generation of computers, phones, televisions and other electronic equipment, the question of what to do with the old models becomes more pressing. The rapid advancements in technology that lead to new and ever-changing electronic devices make the effective management of the quickly outdated products more critical.

The amount of electronic or e-waste present in the national waste stream continues to grow rapidly. The reduce-reuse-recycle model that worked with solid waste--reducing the amount of waste generated and reusing or recycling the products created--is important to effective management of e-waste. However, in 2000, while 2,124,400 tons of electronic waste was generated in the United States only 193,700 tons, or about 9 percent, was recovered for reuse or recycling.


One particular problem for states and localities in managing the flow of electronic waste is the huge amount that goes into landfills. It results in two main problems: volume and toxicity. The sheer volume of e-waste threatens to overwhelm available landfill space. And the degradation of e-waste in landfills can release toxic materials into the environment.

Computer monitors and other electronics contain such toxics as lead, mercury and fire retardants that may be released as the units are compacted and broken in the landfilling process. Although most landfills have liners, there is mounting concern that as the waste degrades, the toxins could pose a serious threat to air and groundwater and ultimately to human health.

Minnesota and Virginia have banned electronics from landfills and similar "e-ban" legislation has been introduced in six other states. Minnesota's ban on cathode ray tubes goes into effect July 1. Virginia law allows localities to ban e-waste from landfills if there is a recycling program in place.

The pending legislation introduced this year ranges from general e-waste bans in Arkansas, Nevada, New York and North Carolina to specific bans of cathode ray tubes in Hawaii and Michigan.

These bills are just one piece of the puzzle of how to manage the end-of-life of electronics. Recent action in the Maryland General Assembly puts the state on par with California and Maine in passing comprehensive e-waste legislation. The legislature passed a law that establishes a statewide computer recycling program structured to encourage manufacturers to design for easy disassembly and recycling.

"What we're doing is asking computer designers to use their brilliance up front to plan for the full life cycle of their products," says Delegate Dan Morhaim, who sponsored the bill. The Maryland program requires any manufacturer that produces more than 1,000 computers a year to register with the state and pay an annual $5,000 fee into the existing Recycling Trust Fund. If a manufacturer implements its own takeback program, subsequent annual fees will be reduced to $500.

The legislation won bipartisan support in the legislature as well as from the Maryland Department of Environment, manufacturers, retailers, county officials and the governor.

"The measure is pro-business, pro-environment, pro-health and pro-taxpayer," says Morhaim. "With the broad base of support and far-reaching benefits, hopefully others will see this law as a model for legislation at the state and federal level."

The national discussion on electronics management follows the three variations of end-of-life electronics management enacted by states. Maryland and Maine focus on the producer responsibility, although implementation of their programs will be vastly different. In Maine, beginning next year for computers and 2012 for televisions, manufacturers are responsible for handling and recycling monitors received at consolidation facilities and paying the costs involved. …