Haunted by Dead Electronics? Don’t Let E-Waste Laws Scare You!

Monday, October 30, 2017
Cynthia R. Harris

Staff Attorney; Director of Tribal Programs; Deputy Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is the fastest-growing segment of the municipal waste stream. Nearly 100% is recyclable, and valuable materials like plastics, metals, and glass can be recovered. E-waste also can contain toxic materials, like lead, mercury, and arsenic. Worldwide, up to 50 million tons of e-waste is expected to be dumped in 2017. Yet, in the United States, less than 30 percent is recycled.

E-waste (Wikimedia Commons)E-Waste Laws in the United States

It’s no surprise that 25 states—and the District of Columbia—have electronics recycling laws. Yet, no jurisdiction takes a one-size-fits-all approach to e-waste. Nearly one-half the states in the United States—along with most of the world’s developed economies and many emerging nations—follow the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model. Under this model, manufacturers bear the costs of establishing collection and recycling programs for their products.

New York and the Producer Responsibility Model

New York provides one example; in fact, ELI has organized public workshops on the topic with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The New York Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act was signed into law in 2010 and went into effect 2011, with a universal disposal ban in place as of 2015.

In a nutshell, electronics manufacturers must register with DEC, maintain a year-round e-waste acceptance program that is free and convenient to consumers, meet an annual goal of e-waste collected, submit detailed annual reports, and pay a registration and yearly reporting fee to the state.

E-waste acceptance programs collect “covered electronic equipment,” or CEE. This spans computers, computer peripherals (i.e., keyboards and mice), small equipment (like video game consoles), small-scale servers, televisions, and cathode ray tubes. Cell phones are covered by a different law.

There are two types of CEE a manufacturer must accept: (1) all electronic waste for which it is the manufacturer; and (2) CEE under the “one-for-one” rule. This means that, for each consumer’s purchase of one piece of the manufacturer’s CEE of the same type, that manufacturer must accept one piece of CEE of any other manufacturer’s brand. To illustrate, if a customer purchases seven computers from manufacturer A and brings in for recycling nine old computers made by manufacturer B, manufacturer A must accept seven of the nine brand B computers. But manufacturer A must accept all CEE of manufacturer A’s own brand that the customer offers for recycling.

The program is provided to consumers for free, with a few exceptions, such as business consumers that employ a minimum number of people. A mail-back program, for example, must offer free packaging and shipping labels. But manufacturers may charge for premium services, such as refurbishment for reuse. Manufacturers can save costs by banding together in a collective to run a shared collection program.

A bit trickier for manufacturers is determining one or more collection methods that fit the definition of being “reasonably convenient” for consumers. First, manufacturers must offer at least one method of collection in every county, and in each municipality with a minimum population of 10,000. This could be a fixed site (like working with a retailer), a community collection event, a mail-back program, or a combination of any or all of these. What is convenient for a consumer depends on the product. For example, a mail-back program may be more sensible for small electronic devices—but not for a large television!

New York calculates collection goals for both the state and for individual manufacturers. The statewide goal each year is adjusted based on the weight of CEE collected the prior three years. The “manufacturer’s acceptance standard” for each electronics manufacturer is based on the company’s averaged New York market share by weight, multiplied by the statewide recycling goal. The state can levy a surcharge for falling short of this goal. But manufacturers can also earn credits for going above and beyond. Overall, approximately 420 million pounds of CEE were collected between 2011 and 2015.

DEC is currently working on regulations to add clarity on matters spanning reuse standards, acceptance credits, surcharge waivers, public education programs, and more. Participants in the upcoming November 15 workshop—available both online and in-person in New York City—will learn much more about New York’s law and the upcoming regulations, as well as have the opportunity to pose their questions to DEC officials.

Other Electronics Recycling Models in the United States: California and Utah

In California, consumers rather than manufacturers cover the cost of collection. Customers pay a fee on retail sales of covered electronic devices. This money goes into a fund, which is used to pay qualified collectors and recyclers. The state also reimburses manufacturers that collect CEE from consumers for recycling.

No collection is required in Utah, where manufacturers need only implement a public education program on collection and recycling programs.

Learning About Electronics Recycling in Your State

Whether you are a manufacturer, a retailer, or engaged consumer, initial considerations include:

  • What products are covered? Some states have separate recycling requirements for products like cell phones, GPS devices, and cameras.
  • Who is entitled to free collection? This may be limited to individual retail customers and households, or include certain businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.
  • Can you charge some consumers for recycling in exchange for special “extra” services, like door-to-door pick-up or refurbishment?
  • Is there a statewide collection goal and, if so, what is the amount of e-waste each manufacturer must collect annually? What are the penalties for falling short, and are there credits for collecting a surplus?
  • What are acceptable methods of collection?
  • Is there an option to join forces with other manufacturers to manage a collection program?
  • Is there a duty to educate the public or protect consumer data?
  • How should you select a qualified recycler partner? R2 and e-Steward offer well-regarded certification programs.
  • What are the registration and reporting requirements and fees?
  • What are the penalties for violating the law?

Ideally, we will see an increasing number of manufacturers take a comprehensive approach to the complete product lifestyle. This means considering the product’s environmental impacts at each stage—raw material acquisition, design, production, transportation, consumer use, and disposal. In the meantime, these electronics recycling laws are an important step to responsibly using—and reusing—our natural resources while reducing the pressure on our landfills.

Further resources: