Do we need a Federal law for electronics recycling?

Patchwork of state laws limits electronic recycling efforts – a national law is needed, GAO says

A move could be afoot to get the Federal government behind a national law that would standardize the way electronic equipment is disposed of and or recycled.

A report issued this week by Congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office stated: "The United States does not have a comprehensive national approach for the reuse and recycling of used electronics, and previous efforts to establish a national approach have been unsuccessful...Broad agreement exists among key stakeholders that reusing and recycling electronics in an environmentally sound manner has substantial advantages over disposing of them in landfills or exporting them to developing countries in a manner that threatens human health and the environment."

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The report notes an effort to set a national standard known as the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, a key previous effort that was initially funded by EPA, and others met between 2001 and 2004, in part to develop a financing system to facilitate reuse and recycling. Proponents included representatives of federal, state, and local governments; electronics manufacturers, retailers, and recyclers; and environmental organizations. Yet despite broad agreement in principle, stakeholders in the process did not reach agreement on a uniform, nationwide financing system, the GAO stated. In particular, they did not reach agreement on a uniform system that would address the unique issues related to televisions, which have longer life spans and cost more to recycle than computers.

As of June 2010, 23 states had enacted electronics recycling legislation. Other states have banned certain electronics from landfills or funded voluntary recycling efforts. Such efforts have increased recycling opportunities for consumers but raised concerns about the growth of a patchwork of state requirements, the GAO stated.

"Five of the states-California, Maine, Minnesota, Texas, and Washington-represent some of the key differences in financing mechanisms. California was early to enact legislation and is the only state to require that electronics retailers collect a recycling fee from consumers at the time of purchase of a new electronic product covered under the law. These fees are deposited into a fund managed by the state and used to pay for the collection and recycling of used electronics. In contrast, the other four states have enacted legislation making manufacturers selling products in their jurisdictions responsible for recycling or for some or all of the recycling costs," the GAO stated.

While the state-by-state approach may provide states with greater regulatory flexibility, it does not address the concerns of manufacturers and others who consider the state-by-state approach to be a significant compliance burden. The compliance burden may actually worsen as more states enact laws, the GAO stated.

In addition to creating a compliance burden, the state-by-state approach does not ensure a baseline in terms of promoting the environmentally sound reuse and recycling of used electronics, not only in states without electronics recycling legislation but also in states with legislation. For example, unlike some other state electronics recycling legislation, the Texas law does not require manufacturers to finance the recycling of televisions, which may require a cost incentive for recycling, since the cost of managing the leaded glass from televisions with CRTs may exceed the value of materials recycled from used equipment, the GAO stated.

So what to do?

The GAO said that under a national strategy based on the establishment of federal standards for state electronics recycling programs, federal legislation would be required.

"For the purpose of analysis, [the GAO] assumed that the legislation would establish federal standards and provide for their implementation-for example, through a cooperative federalism approach whereby states could opt to assume responsibility for the standards or leave implementation to EPA, through incentives for states to develop complying programs, or through a combination of these options."

The EPA already has a number of programs designed to address many recycling issues such as the Plug-In To eCycling, EPEAT, and the Federal Electronics Challenge, but the GAO stated it wanted to see more.  "The GAO recommends that the Administrator of EPA undertake an examination of the agency's partnership programs for the management of used electronics. The analysis should examine how the impacts of such programs can be augmented, and should culminate in an integrated strategy that articulates how the programs, taken together, can best assist stakeholders in achieving the environmentally responsible management of used electronics nationwide."

The GAO also recommended that the US adopt the principles behind the Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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