Growth of e-waste may lead to 'e-fee' on devices

Four U.S. states have passed electronics recycling laws, with another 21 likely to follow

The effort to control what's called e-waste could lead to a national "e-fee," a recycling charge that would be paid just like a sales tax on laptop PCs, computer monitors, televisions and some other electronic devices.

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson last month introduced legislation that would impose just such a fee, amounting to up to US$10, on electronic equipment. The bill, called the National Computer Recycling Act (download PDF), was first introduced several years but wasn't adopted then. This time, Thompson's bill may not end up in the recycle bin.

Four states -- California, Washington, Maryland and Maine -- have approved electronics recycling laws, and another 21, as well as Puerto Rico, are considering similar measures, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). The adoption of the state laws, which have varying requirements, has put increasing pressure on Congress to create a national, uniform plan to deal with electronic waste.

Thompson and fellow members of the Congressional E-Waste Working Group met last September with IT vendors, resellers and equipment recyclers to get ideas. Proposals from them are due as early as this week, said Anne Warden, a spokeswoman for Thompson.

Electronics makers and resellers have yet to agree on a method for paying the cost of recycling devices that can contain materials such as mercury and lead, according to officials at electronics industry groups. Nationwide, that cost would amount to about US$300 million per year, said Richard Goss, vice president of environmental affairs at the Electronic Industries Alliance, which represents 1,300 companies and also is based in Arlington. Goss said he expects business and home users to pay the recycling bill.

Thompson's legislation is modeled after California's law, which imposes an advance recycling fee ranging from US$6 to US$10 on electronic devices. The retailer or reseller keeps 3 percent to cover its costs of collecting the fee, and the rest goes to the state, which disburses the money to collectors and recyclers at a rate of 48 cents per pound.

Contrast that to Maine, which doesn't charge an upfront recycling fee at the time of purchase. Instead, manufacturers are responsible for the recycling costs. Local municipalities collect the electronics devices, which then go to a state-approved private company for recycling, according to Carole Cifrino, an environmental specialist at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Under Maine's system, once a product such as a laptop is collected, the manufacturer is identified and sent a bill for the disposal costs, which range from 19 to 42 cents per pound. If a hardware maker has gone out of business or can't be identified, the cost of disposal is spread out between all manufacturers. "I think that Maine has been very proactive in trying to reduce the toxicity of waste going into landfills and incinerators," Cifrino said.

Industry groups can see pluses and minuses in the various laws. Goss, for instance, points out that under Maine's law, long-established electronics makers likely will absorb much of the disposal costs while foreign competitors and so-called white-box makers that may be short-lived could avoid paying any of the expenses.

There are no hearings scheduled yet on Thompson's federal bill, and it remains to be seen how the electronics industry will influence the final proposal. But the expectation is that the topic of e-waste will generate increasing debate among lawmakers.

"I do think we're under pressure to do something, not just because of Thompson but because of what's going on in the states," said Parker Brugge, senior director and environmental counsel at the CEA.

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