Electronic Waste

Full Document Available in PDF

Increasingly, news reports and environmental activists are claiming that we are facing a new solid waste crisis. “Electronic junk [is] piling up everywhere, creating what some experts predict will be the largest toxic waste problem of the 21st century,” reads an article in Environmental Health Perspectives. Similarly, Greenpeace claims, “The world is consuming more and more electronic products every year. This has caused a dangerous explosion in electronic scrap (e-waste) containing toxic chemicals and heavy metals that cannot be disposed of or recycled safely.” As a result of such rhetoric, Europe has passed several “e-waste” laws, U.S. states have begun looking into their own regulations, and members of Congress have proposed legislation. Unfortunately, misinformation about the issue and the naive belief that government is positioned to improve electronic waste handling is leading to misguided policies and legislation.

In 2003, the European Union (EU) passed a couple of e-waste policies that are becoming models for U.S. regulation. The Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) phases out certain “hazardous substances”—lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, bromated flame retardants— that are used in electronics. The other directive, the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive, mandates that companies take back electronic equipment for disposal starting in 2005. 

The costs of these programs are likely to be significant. The EU government estimates that both programs will cost €500 million to €900 million, and industry estimates costs of up to €62.5 billion. According to Gartner Inc., a U.K.-based technology analysis company, the cost of the two directives will raise personal computer prices by about $60. 

The benefits of the programs are assumed, rather than assessed through any comprehensive study. Instead, these programs are based on the precautionary principle, which assumes that in the absence of information about risk, regulators should act to prevent potential risks. 

Following Europe’s lead, several members of Congress formed an e-waste task force in 2005 to study the issue and produce legislation. Members of this task force are basing their policy on misinformation, as is apparent from their comments on the topic in the press. 

During the 109th Congress, several members offered e-waste legislation. Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA) introduced H.R. 4316 and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced S. 510, both of which would provide tax credits for recycling computers and would ban disposal of computer monitors in landfills, among other things. Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA) offered H.R. 425, which would impose a tax on electronic equipment sales, levying up to $10 per item. The funds would go to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would use them to award grants to parties working to recycle computers. 

In addition, numerous states are following Europe’s lead. For example, in 2001, California banned the disposal of computer monitors in landfills, and in 2003, it passed a law to place a sales tax on computers—which lawmakers euphemistically call an “advance disposal fee.” This new tax is supposed to fund a state computer recycling program, but if costs of the program grow, the state can increase the tax to cover its costs. The fee is likely to grow, because it costs about $20 to $25 to recycle each unit. Some program supporters advocate increasing the tax to as much as $60 per computer sold. E-waste policies are also in place in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington State, Connecticut, Oregon, North Carolina, and Texas.