Mandated Recycling of Electronics: Creating a Mountain out of a Landfill

Gattuso Article in the April Issue of CEI's Monthly Planet

This article is based on the report, Mandating Recycling of Electronics: A Lose-Lose-Lose Proposition , published by CEI, February 2005.

Haste maketh waste in the fast-paced world of technology. Americans trash two million tons of old computers and other forms of electronic waste every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While that is a tiny fraction of the nation’s total waste stream, the issue is creating heaps of hype and hysteria among state and federal lawmakers about what to do with the “e-waste.”

California became the first state to hold consumers responsible for their e-mess. Starting this year, if you buy a television or personal computer from a manufacturer in California , you will pay $6 to $10 to finance a costly, statewide program to collect and recycle all used monitors. Moreover, manufacturers are required to rethink the way they build computers. By 2007, they must phase out lead—currently used in computers to protect users from the tube’s x-rays—mercury, cadmium, and other substances crucial to the operation of PCs.

Maine ‘s law, enacted last spring, is even more draconian, requiring manufacturers to arrange and pay to have their used computers and TVs collected and recycled. Many other states—including Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Texas—are considering legislation similar to California’s or Maine’s.

Meanwhile, Congress is weighing in to provide a national “solution” and prevent a hodge-podge of 50 different state laws. In January, Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to require consumers to pay a $10 fee on new computer purchases to fund a nationwide e-waste recycling program. While the fee may seem insignificant, there is little reason to believe it would remain low for long; the cost to recycle a single computer is six times that amount.

On March 3, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) introduced the Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act (S. 510), which would authorize EPA to ban all computer monitors, laptops, and TVs from landfills three years from its enactment. It would also set up a national recycling program by providing tax credits to the recycling industry and to consumers who send their tech trash to a “qualified” recycler. The legislation’s sponsors naively assume that tax credits are enough incentive to establish an infrastructure large and strong enough to handle all of the country’s computer and TV discards. Furthermore, the bill, if passed, would be disastrous for the nation’s numerous voluntary reuse programs. The bill’s focus on rewarding recycling would undercut successful and important efforts to refurbish computers for reuse, which has been found to be five to 20 times more energy efficient than recycling. Reuse also makes home computers more affordable.

This rush to enact some form of costly recycling legislation is the result of a swirl of misinformation spread largely by powerful eco-activist groups—motivated by the belief that the growing amount of electronic waste reflects the ills of a “throw-away” society and that recycling e-waste to achieve “zero waste tolerance” is a moral obligation. Among the myths bandied about are that e-waste is growing at an uncontrollable, “exponential” rate; that, in the words of Sen. Wyden, “growing amounts of e-waste are clogging our nation’s landfills;” and that heavy metals contained in computers are leaking out of the landfills, poisoning our the soil.

In reality, e-waste has remained at only 1 percent of the nation’s total municipal waste stream since EPA began calculating electronics discards in 1999. Furthermore, the annual number of obsolete home computers is expected to level off at 63 million this year. While that may sound like a lot of computers, it’s not an unmanageable amount. If you took all the United States ‘ trash for the next 1,000 years, including e-waste, it would fit into a 120-foot deep, 44 square mile landfill. That’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the land in the U.S.

Furthermore, landfill capacity is not diminishing but remains constant, according to the EPA. While some landfills have been closing due to stringent federal regulations, they are being replaced with new ones 25 times larger.

Finally, there is no scientific evidence that e-waste in landfills presents health risks. Landfills are built today with thick, puncture-resistant liners that keep waste from coming into contact with soil and groundwater. Timothy Townsend of the University of Florida , a leading expert on the effects of electronic waste in landfills, conducted tests in 2003 on 11 landfills containing e-waste from TV and computer monitors mixed in with municipal solid waste. He found concentrations of lead far below the safety standard—and less than 1 percent of what EPA’s lab tests had predicted. “There is no compelling evidence,” says Townsend, that e-waste creates a risk in landfills.

His conclusions are consistent with findings of other recent studies. A year-long, peer-reviewed study by the Solid Waste Association of North America released last year concluded that, “extensive data…show that heavy metal concentrations in leachate and landfill gas are generally far below the limits…established to protect human health and the environment.”

The real problem is that a growing number of state and local regulators, based on misplaced fears, are rushing to ban TVs and PCs from municipal landfills, artificially creating the problem of where to discard them. Mandated recycling is not the answer. The costs, ultimately passed on to consumers, are staggering—$500 per ton of e-waste to recycle versus $40 per ton to landfill. “Eco-design” requirements like California ‘s and Maine ‘s will cripple technological innovation, and substance bans will unleash a host of unintended health and environmental risks.

Thankfully, there is good news. Manufacturers are recycling their products on their own, and they’re doing it better and cheaper than government. Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Gateway, and IBM are just a few of the many manufacturers operating their own recovery programs, recycling over 160 million pounds of e-waste a year. Equally as promising is eBay’s new “Rethink Initiative” to provide guidance to consumers on recycling, donating, or even selling their used machines online.

How to make these efforts even more successful? Keep government’s nose out of the e-garbage.