For public works departments, getting involved in the collection and recycling of electronic waste has become a question of not if, but how. With the life cycles of electronic equipment shrinking, the pile of junked gear mounting, and attention from regulators rising, e-waste is quickly becoming a highly visible and potentially volatile solid waste issue.
As attention increases, however, so does cost—and what doesn't go up is any kind of economic or logistical upside for cities and towns that commit themselves to jumping into the e-waste stream. Collecting and facilitating the processing of e-waste is complex and expensive, and the only real boon to municipalities involved in it is the community value and peace of mind—assuming that the municipality picks the right and responsible partners for a still unregulated process where the potential for deception and abuse is rampant.
Electronic waste still only represents 1% of the overall waste stream, but its potential impact on the environment is high. According to data that the American Public Works Association's (APWA) Solid Waste Committee recently presented in a Congressional briefing, Americans discarded approximately 2.5 million tons of used electronics in 2003—items that regularly contain lead, mercury, and other components that are potentially harmful to the environment. Extrapolate that 2003 figure out even over the past three years—with innovation cycles for this kind of equipment shrinking and consumer tastes fickle—and the scale of the problem multiplies.
“Technology is moving so fast, and all of us want to have the latest and the best,” said Roger Flint, director of public works and utilities in Spokane, Wash., and chairman of the APWA's solid waste committee. “Even if it gets reused, it doesn't get reused for very long. Right now it's just ending up in the trash.”WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT?
Only four states currently have enacted legislation regarding e-waste: Washington, Maine, California, and Maryland. While those moves are encouraging, that kind of piecemeal approach introduces the possibility of confusion, particularly for equipment manufacturers and retailers whose businesses don't stop at state lines. The APWA is pushing for consistency between state regulations and federal mandates, and Flint said the state-level legislation will be good “pilot studies.”
“If there's not some uniformity, manufacturers and retailers are going to have a hard time,” he said. “We're advocating for a combined effort that regulates certain activity at the federal level, some part at the state level, and involvement at the local level—but no one party wants to or should have to bear the full burden. We haven't been advocating regulation, because then all of a sudden you're forcing someone to recycle something where a market may not yet exist.”
Advocates of e-waste recycling generally agree that while attention to the issue at the state and federal levels is very important, action at the local level is what ultimately will be the most effective.
“The public is used to dealing with garbage on a local level,” said Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC), an organization that promotes and supports recycling efforts and the development of recycling markets across 10 eastern states, and nationally. “That's why this is working.”
Part of NERC's contribution to the e-waste effort is the model legislation it recently developed and released in conjunction with the Council of State Governments/Eastern Regional Conference. The document, “An Act Providing for the Recovery and Recycling of Used Electronic Devices,” is designed to help promote statewide initiatives and infrastructure for the collection and recycling of e-waste. It was developed over a 14-month period in collaboration with more than 50 state legislators, electronics manufacturers, retailers, environmental groups, and local governments.