Reality bites.

In a few years, brand-new shiny laptops and flashy flat-screen TVs bought today will scream, "That's so 2006." Thus goes technology, and to keep up with the Joneses, replacement will obviously be the consumer's only option.

Though environmentalists and policymakers increasingly agree that "has-been" computers and some of their components don't belong with your average trash, it's less obvious who will manage the afterlife of our former favorite electronic gadgets. In practical terms, who will foot the bill?

Retailers point their fingers at manufacturers, some of whom point to consumers; consumers who just want to know what to do with their old machines turn to their local municipalities; and municipalities -- with their tight budgets -- look to their state.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Congress struggles to create a national e-waste policy, and tons of electronic refuse are improperly disposed of yearly.

In the Midwest, the environmental agencies of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have partnered to untangle this imbroglio, creating the Midwest Regional Electronic Waste Recycling Policy Initiative.

The goal is to draft a regional e-waste policy -- pointing to a manufacturer's responsibility model -- whose ultimate purpose is to prevent harmful electronic materials from ending up in landfills. But reconciling the diverging interests of the many stakeholders is proving complex.

You Make It, You Recycle It

"We advocate for a plan that's fairly simple," said Cynthia Moore, recycling program coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and her state's representative in the Midwest initiative.

Under the plan, manufacturers who do business in the Midwest would have two options, she explained.

First, they could develop their own program, which should include all aspects of the recycling process -- from collecting to the actual disposal or reuse of the components. They can also partner with existing haulers and recyclers. "We don't get involved in it," Moore said. "They just have to be able to demonstrate that they have recycled a certain tonnage based on their sales in the state in the last year."

With the second option, manufacturers pay a set fee to the state -- still based on the weight of electronic devices sold the previous year -- and the state handles their recycling. "If there's enough buy-in on that option," Moore said, "we would definitely look toward setting up a third-party organization that would deal directly with the producers, and would do the handling of the recycling, tracking and reporting."

Regardless of their chosen option, all manufacturers would have to register with the state, or their products would be barred from sales in said state. Retailers could purchase only from registered manufacturers, and must report on each manufacturer's sales. This report would determine how much e-waste each manufacturer would be obliged to recycle the following year.

Although the policy aims specifically at properly disposing of cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in laptops, monitors, desktop computers and TV sets, Moore said manufacturers would also get credit for other electronic items, such as printers. The draft also stipulates that manufacturers who process more than their obligation could use the extra tonnage recycled toward credit for the following year.

Among other stipulations, the draft proposes a complete ban on CRT-based products in landfills within two years of the law going into effect. "The big challenge with e-waste, and particularly computers and televisions, is they have cathode ray tubes that are part of the monitors and TV sets -- particularly older models," explained Steve Brachman, a waste reduction specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. "Those contain quite a bit of lead, and lead is not a good thing to put into the environment -- even sequestered in a landfill."

Corine Stofle  |  Staff Writer