Consumer electronics OEMs have been pushing hard for U.S. federal electronics recycling legislation for some time.
The reason is simple: They don't want to be forced to design and produce products that meet different environmental requirements of 50 different states.
To date, only four states (California, Maine, Maryland, and Washington) have passed electronics recycling laws, each differing in standards and scope. And more state environmental laws are on the way.
"This state-by-state approach is unworkable in the long term," says Parker Brugge, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) senior director and environmental counsel.
The CEA is winning support from other industry sectors that see a need for federal laws comparable to the European Union's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS), and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) legislation.
"Increasing and varying state-by-state rules are already causing unnecessary complexity for electronic manufacturers and distributors who must try to track and meet them all," says Paul Tallentire, president of Newark InOne, a Chicago-based distributor. "Are we going to wait until we have 50 state laws with 50 flavors before we enact a uniform national standard for our industry?"
Global competition is a good reason to take this seriously. "Both China and South Korea have already proposed RoHS-style regulations to ensure that their own manufacturers can continue to export electronic goods to the EU and the rest of the world," notes Tallentire. "Are the stakes any less for U.S. manufacturers?"
A study released at the end of October National Electronics Recycling Information Clearinghouse (NERIC), a non-profit organization formed in 2005 to develop a national infrastructure for the recycling of use electronics in the U.S., says the impact of a patchwork of state-by-state laws has added significant cost to U.S. electronics recycling efforts.
Drawing from cost estimates provided by principal public and private sector groups in state electronics recycling programs, the study has identified "dead weight" costs that would not be present with the introduction and implementation of a national recycling program. The study estimates recurring dead weight costs of the four existing state-legislated programs at $25 million per year. Dead weight cost drivers in the four states that have enacted electronics recycling legislation include policing and excluding out-of-state wastes, manufacturer/retailer compliance (including redundant and conflicting information requirements), redundant system administration, and redundant state program development. At the present implementation rate of one new state mandated program a year, the study suggests that recurring dead weight costs will increase substantially during the coming years.
The IEEE announced its first environmental standard, the "Standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products," in May, and the Green Electronics Council lists products that comply with the new standard (http://www.epeat.net). But compliance is voluntary and the standard only covers computers and monitors.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an agency of the U.S. Congress, published a study of the e-waste problem in November 2005. Called "Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse," the report acknowledges the state-by-state patchwork of laws as they impact the electronics industry and even supports WEEE-type federal legislation. But the process of getting interested industry entities together, and to agree on the language of a federal law covering the entire industry, has been slow and self-serving based on industry sectors.