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Dispensing with the indispensable: getting rid of our electronic gadgets is an environmental challenge.

They are everywhere. On our nightstands. In our purses and briefcases. They adorn our desks at work. They are the ever evolving gadgets of a modern life that keep us on time and in touch with our friends, family, co-workers and the world around us. To many they are merely a PDA, a computer or a cell phone. To policymakers across the nation they represent a balancing act between environmental stewardship and technological advancement.

These indispensable gadgets are an e-waste challenge. According to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, 3 billion units will be scrapped during the rest of this decade. Just how do you manage the sheer volume of material and the hazardous components these numbers represent? That is the very question policymakers at the federal, state and local level are grappling with.


Despite the national nature of the problem, it is state legislators who are pressing for effective ways to handle e-scrap. During the 2005-2006 legislative sessions, bills aimed at managing e-waste were introduced or considered in 25 states. Lawmakers continue to target their initiatives to the particular needs and assets of their communities. That's what California, Maine and Maryland considered when they adopted their statewide programs.

Washington joined Maine and Maryland in enacting an "extended producer responsibility program." This approach ensures that companies are not only concerned with making a product and how it works, but also with how the product is disposed of at the end of its useful life. California, on the other hand, collects the money up front with an "advance recovery fee" that is paid by consumers at the point of sale. Washington's law covers more products than the other three states, including TVs, desktop computers (CPUs--central processing units), and monitors. Producers must pay not only for e-waste recycling programs, but the collection and transportation of their products to recycling facilities.

"One of the most effective tools in addressing issues on the environmental side," says Washington Senator Craig Pridemore, "is ill affecting economic markets. The goal is to encourage environmentally responsible results."

Washington manufacturers can create their own takeback programs, work with existing e-waste collectors, or participate in a standardized plan administered by a third party. Washington's third-party organization will be the first in operation nationally despite long standing stakeholder interest in the concept. It is hoped that third-party organizations will serve as a private sector alternative to a government recycling administration and preclude the need for more bureaucracy.

Although manufacturers have the major responsibility for establishing and paying for e-waste programs, retailers, local governments, recyclers and charities will be encouraged to provide collection sites. Consumers will be asked to bring e-waste to the sites.

Speak to almost anyone involved in the Washington experience and the lessons learned echo through each conversation. Senator Pridemore credits working with the broad-based coalition involved with this legislation as one of the highlights of the bill.

"The cooperation of many disparate parties made for a productive process and an effective piece of legislation," he says.

Sego Jackson, principal planner for the Snohomish County Solid Waste Management Division goes a step further: "This law is remarkable in that there were so malay changes made to accommodate stakeholders, many compromises reached, and yet the integrity of the bill was not lost."

The legislation has supporters in the industry and environmental communities as well. Barbara Kyle from the Computer TakeBack Campaign says that having buy-in from all the parties with an interest in the issue was key.

"The year-long process involved very hard work from the state environmental agency, recyclers, manufacturers, retailers, charities, NGOs, and local government officials," she says.

Lesson learned: Moving forward with the involvement of all the stakeholders at the onset may be cumbersome at first but can build goodwill and support for legislative action.

That's not to say that there wasn't any opposition. The Electronic Manufacturers Coalition for Responsible Recycling, a group of television, computer and laptop manufacturers, zealously fought the legislation. The coalition believes that the law places a disproportionate burden on one stakeholder. Instead, all participants who share in the benefits of these products--manufacturers, retailers, government and consumers--should also share in the responsibility of disposal. Although the group participated in stakeholder conversations, it was unable to provide an alternative approach that would achieve the goals outlined by the group negotiating the legislation.

An interesting footnote to the legislative process involved in passing the Washington law was Governor Christine Gregoire's veto of provisions prohibiting the export of electronic waste to certain other countries. The governor's legal counsel found that the state did not have the authority to impose this prohibition. In her veto message, Governor Gregoire noted that she found the section represented "good environmental policy" and so would call on the president and Congress to "take up the issue and enact legislation that prohibits the export of our hazardous wastes to Third World countries that are not prepared to manage them."


State regulators have been active players in negotiations at the state and national level, participating in congressional hearings, national working groups, and the National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative, which attempted to form consensus on a range of e-waste issues. Last fall, regulators in seven Midwest states launched The Great Lakes E-waste Policy Development Initiative. Building on the efforts of 10 northeastern states to develop model legislation for introduction on a regional level, the initiative seeks to develop a consistent and unified approach for managing waste electronics. In April, the group released a policy statement that has already received letters of support from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Highlights of the plan include placing responsibility on manufacturers for ensuring the collection, transportation and recycling of waste electronics and a two-pronged financing option for funding a take-back program. Producers will be financially responsible for recycling electronic waste, but have an option to pay a fee to the state to carry out their responsibilities. The group is now exploring options for securing lawmakers' support for the uniform legislation, according to Garth Hickle, at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has remained actively involved in numerous voluntary initiatives addressing electronics recycling. EPA partnership programs run the scope of concerns surrounding life-cycle management of electronics including promoting environmentally sound design and manufacturing, purchasing more environmentally sustainable electronic products, and increasing safe and environmentally sound reuse and recycling of electronic products. Launched in 2003, Plug-In To eCycling is one of the highlights of the EPA's efforts. This consumer electronics campaign is targeted at increasing public information and opportunities to safely recycle old electronics through public-private partnerships that promote shared responsibility and to test innovative approaches through pilot programs. Among Plug-In's 2005 activities was a cleanup effort by EPA and Dell in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. All brands of old or unwanted electronics, including computer equipment, televisions, VCRs, DVD players and radios were collected.


Despite a flurry of congressional attention during 2005, there has been no movement on legislation to advance a nationwide program to manage the end-of-life disposal of electronic equipment this year. In an attempt to restart the national discussion, the Congressional E-Waste Working Group is exploring the potential for a mediated negotiation process. In early March 2006, the working group requested that the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution assess the prospects for reaching agreement on key e-waste issues. While the Institute's findings, released May 16, provided few surprises, their recommendations illustrate the impact state activity has had on the national conversation. Universally, stakeholders say they want a national program. They have found it time-consuming and burdensome to comply with the many state programs that require a different response on the part of manufacturers, retailers and recyclers. The institute called for a new round of negotiations and said it should begin quickly to supersede any additional state action.

As the discussions on electronic waste management continue to place state and federal action at odds, policymakers should keep in mind that one does not preclude the other.

"The states are the ones who lead the way on solving our most challenging environmental problems, and the e-waste problem is no different," Kyle says. "If anything, the state programs can help inform the most logical and effective federal approach."


The U.S. Environment, al Protection Agency is promoting "product stewardship as an approach to environmental protection. Its goals are to:

1. Foster environmentally conscious design and manufacturing.

2. Increase the use of more environmentally sustainable electronic products.

3. Increase safe, environmentally sound reuse and recycling of used electronics.

For more information on EPA programs and the opportunities for manufacturers, retailers, governments and local communities to work on life-cycle management of electronics, visit epaoswer/non-hw/reduce/epr/products/ electronics.htm


An ongoing concern of researchers, policymakers and industry stakeholders dealing with e-waste management is a lack of good data. This has in part fueled the proliferation of study commissions at the state level to provide legislators with the information they need to consider statewide electronics recycling requirements. In January, the National Center for Electronics Recycling and the Consumer Electronics Association launched the National Electronics Recycling Infrastructure Clearinghouse to:

* Establish a private sector administration system as an alternative to new government bureaucracies.

* Promote coordination across states.

* Serve as an industry-backed resource on recycling systems.

The material available through the clearinghouse (www.ecyclingresource. org) is targeted for a national infrastructure but should be valuable for legislators wanting to address the needs of their own states.


The U.S. territories often face special problems in waste management and the electronics issue is no different. However, the Guam Legislature's efforts to divert recyclable material from landfills may have opened up a new chapter in the national financing discussion.

GB 232, introduced by Senator Joanne M.S. Brown, chair of the Natural Resources, Utilities and Micronesian Affairs Committee, brought the Legislature back into the ongoing conversations concerning the island's planned recycling program and a controversial advance disposal fee. The fee has sparked public concern over the cost to both business and government. Brown's legislation would instead finance island recycling programs through a series of automobile and heavy equipment registration fees. The revenues would be used to contract with recycling companies to collect, recycle, dispose and process automobiles, buses, heavy equipment, trucks, batteries, tires, household appliances (known as white goods) and other recyclable materials.


Tamra Spielvogel tracks environmental policy at the federal level for NCSL. Former NCSL staffer Denise Griffin also contributed to this article.
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Author:Spielvogel, Tamra
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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