But the times, they are a-changin'. New laws, both federal and state, are changing the way electronic waste is disposed of. In Maine, for example, Gov. John Baldacci signed in 2004 a first-in-the-nation e-waste law that requires manufacturers, consumers, and government to share responsibility for the recycling of computer monitors and televisions generated as wastes by households in Maine.
Mercury-added products generated as wastes by households have had to be recycled in Maine since Jan. 1, 2005, and televisions and computer monitors from households will have to be recycled beginning no later than Jan. 1, 2006. Many municipalities have already begun collecting and recycling mercury-added products, TVs, and computer monitors. Other municipalities will be deciding over the next year how best to meet their obligation to ensure their residents' computer monitors and TVs are delivered to consolidation facilities, where they will be tracked and shipped for recycling. Manufacturers will begin to pay a portion of the handling and recycling costs for these household wastes beginning Jan. 1, 2006.
“Our solid waste and recycling programs will change over the next 6 to 12 months by not allowing e-waste to be within our standard municipal solid waste. Residents will have the opportunity to drop off their old TVs and computer screens at the Riverside Recycling Center, which will serve as a consolidation center for Portland's e-waste,” said Michael J. Bobinsky, director of public works with the city of Portland, Maine. “As units are dropped off at our main center, a distributor representing the e-waste manufacturers will collect the units and arrange for their recycling, disposal, or both. This unique program is funded by the manufacturers of electronic hardware and places the responsibility for their ultimate disposal or recycling on the manufacturers rather than the taxpayers of the city.”
This type of arrangement, known as product stewardship, may be the wave of the future. Product stewardship, common in both California and Maine, mandates that the retailer or manufacturer of a product is responsible for the costs of handling, transportation, and recycling of its goods. Sometimes there's a fee to the consumer at the point of sale (ranging from $5 to $15) and sometimes the fee is covered by the manufacturer or retailer.
“We are developing our relationships with the product manufacturers, and I anticipate this will develop over the next several months and year as the state of Maine completes the enabling legislation for this new requirement,” said Bobinsky. “However, to keep the manufacturers' costs as low as possible, the city has agreed to provide the ‘consolidation center' concept at the Riverside Recycling Center, thus enabling efficient drop off and collection at a single location, with the exception of the Peaks Island community.
“We are developing our standard operating procedures at this time for dealing with electronic items that have no manufacturer labels and will be making final design plans for the drop-off units and public information at this time and for implementation in midsummer,” he said.
This problem of “orphan goods” may be an issue for many municipalities, since the manufacturer of an old stereo or TV may not be around anymore or easily determined from the product. In a case like that, the city or the resident may wind up paying for proper disposal of the product. This issue undoubtedly will be taken up by state and federal governments, since it's such a nebulous topic.
These new laws—and public education—will set the standard on how we recycle e-waste in the future. “The public does not understand the issues with electronics nor do they understand why we cannot collect them at the curb,” said Paul. “They also don't understand that it's their issue—they can get a new [TV or computer] home without their local government's help—why can't they send the old one to the recycling center?”Survey methodology
PUBLIC WORKS surveyed its readers in March via a Web-based survey. More than 600 respondents from across the United States and Canada answered questions about e-waste. If you're interested in being involved in future surveys, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe to survey” in the subject line.