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."
Brachman said a University of Florida study recently concluded that lead will eventually leach into the soil and waste water system.
Other dangerous chemical elements, such as the carcinogen cadmium and other metals, deserve attention, but as Brachman indicated, the problem is quite different from handling hazardous waste -- like mercury thermometers -- that can pose imminent danger in a household setting.
"In the environment, it's more when you hit the end of a life, what's the best way to manage it?"
Naturally Brachman isn't the only one wondering about the afterlife of discarded electronics. Nationwide, e-waste and the recycling of old computers have been a hot topic among the many parties involved -- manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, environmentally conscious consumers and all levels of governments.
At one time, Congress was even developing an e-waste policy that would create a national model. So far that effort has proven unfruitful. "It was worked on for a number of years, but basically no agreement could be achieved between manufacturers of various electronic equipment," said Brachman. "No broad policy was developed at this point, and as a result, again the states have picked up the lead in trying to resolve the issue."
California, Maine and Washington passed laws addressing e-waste, but when Nebraska attempted to do the same earlier this year, the AeA, formerly the American Electronics Association, urged the state to hold off. The nonprofit group, which represents the interests of various technology-related industries, argued that another isolated state policy would only stall the current endeavors to create a national model, and further complicate business for manufacturers who already must deal with a patchwork of regulations.
"We favor a federal approach first," said Marc-Anthony Signorino, director and counsel of technology and environmental policy, as well as the director of state government affairs for the AeA. "We want to make sure the rules are the same across the country."
Failing that, he added, a regional initiative would be preferred. "So the federal effort has been to allow the EPA's different regions to come up with a workable plan."
In fall 2005, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin opted for just that and created the Midwest Regional Electronic Waste Recycling Policy Initiative. "We had all worked together on e-waste issues for a number of years," Moore said of the five participating states. "Finally in September  we said, 'We're not going anywhere. Let's get together and come up with a regional approach.'"
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan all had e-waste legislation being considered by the legislatures, said Garth Hickle, product stewardship team leader at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "They were all very different approaches. We felt this was a good opportunity to come up with at least a consistent regional policy as a starting point, so hopefully the programs that would be implemented would be generally consistent from one state to the next."
The Midwest initiative is the second and most recent of the kind. It was modeled after the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC), a similar project that gathered 10 states -- from Maine and Pennsylvania to Delaware -- to create a prototype for a regional environment policy to manage various refuse, including e-waste.
Although Maine already enacted its own e-waste legislation, according to a source at the state's Department of Environmental Protection, if NERC's model legislation were to pass in the other nine states, Maine could go back to the Legislature to see if lawmakers would follow suit and modify the current policy.
In the meantime, the Midwest looked to NERC for counsel. "We coordinated with them," said Moore. "We talked a lot with them about what they're doing, and how they approached [the issue]. So we had a model to work from."
Like its Northeastern counterpart, the goal of the Midwest initiative is to draft a policy lawmakers can introduce into each state legislature.
In Wisconsin, Moore said, Sen. Mark Miller has produced legislation in the last two years to manage e-waste through a producer responsibility model.
"We've been working with him all along," she added. "We're going to see if we can work out a program that's similar with his so that we're working on the same page."
As Moore explained, like NERC, the Midwest initiative opted for a manufacturer's responsibility model, which is creating much dissension among the makers of electronic materials. "They may not like the approach we are taking," she said, "but they like the regional approach. There's a lot of support for that."
Indeed, though the plan seems simple enough, and above all, lets manufacturers pick the option that best fits their business structure, it's created quite a stir among the technology community.
Can't We All Get Along?
"The industry does not speak with one voice," Moore said of the various reactions of manufacturers invited to give their input on the Midwest policy.
Some manufacturers created their own take-back program long ago. For instance, in 2000, Sony partnered with Minnesota and Waste Management Inc. to organize the free collection of Sony TV sets and personal computers on certain weekdays.
Brachman pointed to other well known programs initiated by manufacturers. "If you look at Dell," he said, "how they've moved quite aggressively into the overall recycling arena, my guess is they're kind of going, 'Well, why do we need legislation to do this? We've just been doing it anyway.' But that's not universally done by the industry, and that's part of the problem."
Indeed, Dell has successfully managed its own take-back program for a few years, consistently meeting or exceeding its goals. Dell's Web site announced a goal to increase material weight recovered from customers in fiscal year 2006 by 50 percent over material weight recovered in fiscal year 2005.
The company exceeded its goal by recovering an additional 22 percent. "In July 2004, we were the first in the industry to announce a free-with-purchase program, where consumers buying a new computer or printer from Dell could recycle their old printer -- any manufacturer, any model -- for free," said Caroline Dietz, a spokeswoman for Dell.
On Sept. 29, 2006, the company announced another innovative program, which allows consumers to dispose of Dell computers at a Dell location for free -- with or without the purchase of new products. "We strongly believe the marketplace is best positioned to have the efficiency and productivity necessary for the collection and recycling of electronic products," Dietz explained. "We feel that based on that, any legislation should not include fees or the creation of new government infrastructures for the collection of electronics."
While the Midwest initiative would have little or no impact on Dell's recycling policy, other manufacturers, however, believe this approach simply won't cut it.
In an e-mail addressed to the Midwest initiative in February 2006, D. Michael Foulkes, manager of state and local government affairs for Apple, said the advanced recovery fee (ARF) model -- the same used in California -- would be the most appropriate.
In this model, consumers are taxed $6 to $10 when they purchase certain electronic devices -- the fee varies by size of the device. The money goes to a state-recycling program that collects, transports and handles e-waste.
"Apple supports this solution," Foulkes wrote, "because it does not place any company at a competitive disadvantage and it allows manufacturers to use already-established recycling systems instead of establishing new, less efficient programs in which they have no experience managing."
On the other hand, some retailers believe the ARF model would deter business. "The primary responsibility of financing end-of-life management should be placed on those who design and manufacture the covered products," wrote Marc A. Pearl, executive director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, in a letter addressed to the initiative in February 2006. "The creation of a new and expensive bureaucratic structure that forces constituents to pay a new tax in the form of a point-of-sale advanced recovery fee, as was suggested as an alternative approach during the fall meeting in Chicago, will not promote a competitive environment and design-for-environment incentives among manufacturers."
Moore agreed that an ARF model would not suit the Midwestern states. "We can't set up a program like in California," she said, "where there's a huge administrative overhead. We simply can't do that."
Signorino said a tax was also a disadvantage for California consumers and a disincentive to buy. He also brought up another delicate issue the Midwest initiative still looks to solve.
"There's the question of orphan products," he said. "Say my grandma has an old DuMont television set. DuMont doesn't exist anymore, so who is responsible for taking that television set back? Leading Edge Computers doesn't exist anymore; who takes that back? That's called 'orphaned waste,' and there really hasn't been a very good resolution on that."
Another point of discord touches on the method used to determine manufacturers' obligation. Though the draft advocates for a market share model, some manufacturers believe a return share model, like the one in Maine, would be fairer.
"Essentially the responsibility is allocated based on the percentage of individual companies' products that are coming back into the waste stream," explained Hickle of the return share model. "Let's say you have a collection event and collect 200 tons of material; 10 tons of that is HP branded or a brand that they own -- Compaq and so forth -- they would be responsible for that, plus a portion of the products that are considered to be either orphans or abandoned."
Further details will deserve attention, such as the amount of the fees owed to the state -- for those who opt to buy into a state recycling program -- and the exact percentage of e-waste manufacturers will be obliged to manage depending on their sales the previous year.
"At this point, just given the number of entities involved," Hickle conceded, "trying to come up with something that's going to be universally supported is very much of a challenge."
Wait and See
Though turmoil seems the order of the day, the desire to ultimately do the right thing -- preventing electronic components from spending the afterlife in landfills -- is prevalent.
"What's really interesting is the high-tech companies are made up of geeks," Signorino said, "and geeks are environmentalists at heart. So people who are making these products already have a commitment to the environment for the most part, and they bring their commitment to protecting the environment to their work."
He also cited several industry efforts to manufacture electronic products less environmentally harmful and easier to recycle.
In addition, consumers -- a critical element in this complex equation -- seem to be on board. Preliminary results of a biennial survey on recycling in Wisconsin indicate that only 3 percent of old computers end up in landfills, Moore said.
"They're finding reuse options for them. They are donating them or they are in storage," she explained. "In my mind, that means they're still sitting there, waiting to go to landfill. We haven't solved the disposal problem, but people aren't taking them to the landfill that much."
Although the Midwest initiative's policy includes a ban on CRTs in landfills within two years of the law's passage, the Minnesota Legislature went forth with a ban before passing an e-waste bill. "Having the disposal ban certainly has raised the pressure for the Legislature to look at various policy options to implement a statewide program," Hickle said.
Unfortunately the e-waste bill stalled in the Legislature, and counties have had to organize collections of their own to uphold the ban on CRTs in landfills.
Once all details are ironed out, each group in the Midwest initiative will present the policy to their respective legislatures.
Though no laws have officially been enacted in the Northeast, a source from NERC said Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania are currently considering e-waste bills. According to the same source, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Puerto Rico are expected to do the same this upcoming legislative season.
No matter how long it takes to reach a consensus, all parties remain optimistic. After all, it's not easy being green, but it's well worth it. "We believe there is a right way to do things in the end," Moore said, "and that our people, our citizens and even our businesses really want to do the right thing and will find a way to do it."