Wisconsin consumers have had to say goodbye to the days of dumping electronic waste in landfills. Under a new law that moves the financial burden from local governments to manufacturers, users now have to recycle their old computers, cell phones and other electronic devices instead of tossing them in the trash.

The state's new e-waste recycling program, E-Cycle Wisconsin, took effect Wednesday, Sept. 1, authorized by the legislation Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law in 2009. Many electronic devices contain harmful materials such as lead, mercury and other heavy metals, which harm the environment when improperly disposed of. But the plastic, steel, copper and glass can be used to make new devices. The law seeks to conserve valuable resources, prevent pollution from improper e-waste disposal and give a boost to the state's recycling industry.

"Electronic devices contain harmful materials and by recycling them, we can ensure that they're handled properly and don't contaminate the air," said Sarah Murray, communications specialist with the state's Department of Natural Resources.

Devices covered by the law include computers, printers, TVs and computer monitors, keyboards, mice, hard drives, DVD players, VCRs and cell phones. The new rules require consumers to bring discarded electronics to collection sites. At the moment, Murray said, the state has about 300 sites registered as collection sites under the program. Drop-off fees vary.

Based on a product stewardship approach, the law gives the primary responsibility for collection and recycling to the manufacturer. According to the bill, manufacturers had to register with the DNR starting Jan. 1. This arrangement takes the stress off local governments, which previously had to handle disposal of electronics, a waste stream growing faster than ever.

For example, in Milwaukee, from 2001 to 2005, the city had 72,000 pounds a year of discarded computer equipment coming from the entire city. Between 2006 and 2009, the average spiked to 428,000 pounds. And taking these discarded devices to a facility for processing cost the city $100,000 a year, according Rick Meyers, a recycling specialist for the city.

"Nothing's changed in terms of costs," he said," but with this bill, instead of all these costs falling on the taxpayers, the manufacturer bears the primary financial responsibility. Now we're actually getting paid a few cents a pound."

At this time, state officials do not plan to issue any individual citations if consumers don't comply. Local and state governments, Murray said, want to focus on the educating the public, not fining individuals.

"The government always seems to be the bad guy anyway," said Chris Pirlot, operations director for Green Bay, Wis. "So we did public service announcements and got the word out as a goodwill gesture. We didn't want to leave our residents high and dry."

For a complete list of all recycling and collection sites, visit the DNR's website.

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer