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Laws Fail to Keep up with Mounting E-Trash

Largely regulated by the states, the U.S. approach to e-waste management has a long way to go



Courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

Editor's note: This article is the second of two addressing the problems posed by aging electronic devices entering the waste stream. See also, Trashed Tech: Where Do Old Cell Phones, TVs and PCs Go to Die?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that consumers and businesses need to recycle old PCs, televisions and cell phones to keep a lid on growing piles of electronic trash. Too bad the EPA lacks the legal power to mandate such action.

The United States government's Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 was enacted to let the EPA track the 75,000 industrial chemicals produced in or imported by the U.S. But Clare Lindsay, project director for the EPA Office of Solid Waste's extended product responsibility program, says it is rarely used to ban substances utilized in the development of electronic products.

The EPA does have regulatory authority when it comes to managing hazardous waste, but lead-laden cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions sent to landfills are about the only electronic devices that are classified as hazardous under current federal guidelines. And these products are not considered hazardous under federal law if tossed by households, even if they test positive for toxic contents. "It makes a big difference where it's coming from," Lindsay says.

So far, states have taken the lead in regulating what's come to be known as "e-waste." Nine states—including California, Maine, Maryland and Washington State—have take-back laws requiring electronics makers to accept discarded devices from their customers. The California and Maine laws cover similar products: laptop computers and video display devices such as TVs and computer monitors; Washington also regulates desktop computers. Maryland's law applies to desktop PCs, laptops and computer monitors but does not include televisions. Only California requires the collection and recycling of rechargeable batteries found in consumer electronics.

The European Commission's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), in place since 2003, places limits on the amount of electronic equipment allowed to enter the waste stream and requires manufacturers to take back and recycle their customers' used equipment. Other European legislation written to prevent hazardous waste requires that safer materials replace heavy metals and brominated flame retardants in new electrical and electronic equipment beginning next year.

"It's hard for [U.S.] companies to ignore this because of what Europe is doing in terms of regulations," says Lloyd Hicks, waste prevention program advisor at INFORM, Inc., a New York City–based environmental research organization. One of the issues holding up progress in the U.S. is deciding who will foot the recycling bill."The industry has failed to come up with a financing mechanism," he says. "Do the vendors collect recycling fees up front? Do they absorb the costs and take back the technology for free?"

By the Numbers:

50 million—the number of metric tons of e-waste generated worldwide annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme

62.5 million—the number of LCD TVs expected to be sold worldwide in 2007, according to research firm iSuppli Corporation in El Segundo, Calif.

3 billion—the number of electronic devices that will be discarded between 2006 and 2010, according to a 2006 report from the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, a trade association for the electronics recycling industry based in Albany, N.Y.

83 percent—North America's market share for televisions larger than 50 inches (1.27 meters) in size, according to iSuppli.

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