E-waste recycling legislation rules 25 US states

E-waste recycling legislation rules 25 US states

August 19, 2019
Maura Keller

Few words captivate the technology sector more than the word ‘change’

Anyone with even a casual understanding of the technology marketplace recognizes that change is constantly afoot. And because of this rate of change and advancement, e-waste handling and disposal has become a significant concern, resulting in various states establishing key legislation for the proper handling of electronics.

In the USA, the disposal of solid and hazardous waste is governed by the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) – a law that was established in 1976 and opened the door to the future state of electronic waste that exists today.

According to Krystal Nelson, founder and chief executive officer of I-Impakt Consulting, prior to RCRA, all waste was treated the same in the USA. No one was separating hazardous waste and there were no rules or regulations on how one disposed of their waste.

“This caused build-up in many cities, which forced the government to sign the RCRA into law,” Nelson said. “Once this law passed, the cost increased for those who had to get rid of hazardous waste.” At the same time, shipping enabled workarounds for those who did not want to pay the increasing cost of disposing of hazardous waste. Many companies and organizations started dumping their waste, including e-waste, in other countries.

The Basel Convention is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the transporting of hazardous waste between nations and to prevent the transfer of hazardous waste from developed countries to less developed countries. Prior to the Basel Convention much of electronic waste was dumped overseas, but the Basel Convention required the USA to think of alternative ways to dispose of the electronic waste.

“Since the Basel Convention, the USA has not established any federal laws for electronic waste recycling, but 25 states have passed laws for the recycling of electronic waste,” Nelson said. “California was the first to create an electronic waste state law in 2003 and the District of Columbia was the last to create a law in 2014.”

Since the Basel Convention, the USA has not established any federal laws for electronic waste recycling, but 25 states have passed laws for the recycling of electronic waste

The progress made in electronic waste legislation has been slow, but as Nelson pointed out, the lack of continued progression is not a reflection of lack of effort.

“Over the years many bills have been introduced across the USA to put into place laws that will impact electronic waste – for example (H.R. 2791). This bill was introduced to stop the export of electronic waste to developing countries,” Nelson said. “It was not passed the first time the bill was introduced, but a slightly modified version of that same bill has been reintroduced as (H.R. 3559) in 2019. A lot of the work that was done has been building up the momentum that will eventually help us expedite movement in electronic waste legislation.”

Mark Newton (pictured above), head of North America corporate sustainability at Samsung Electronics, said that many of the existing e-waste laws were put in place to manage difficult to recycle products such as Cathode Ray Tube Televisions (CRT). “The last CRT was sold in 2006 yet, by weight, they still make up the majority of the consumer waste stream,” Newton said. “Since the industry has evolved into making lighter and more sustainable products, the desire to enact new legislation has decreased. The last two jurisdictions to enact new laws were Washington D.C. in 2014 and Utah in 2011.”

In the USA there are two voluntary standards that most electronics recyclers adhere to – e-Stewards and R2.

As Newton explained, both standards attempt to address proper disposition of e-waste through the lens of the “hierarchy of disposal” where reuse is preferred before recycling, however, e-Stewards also focuses on ensuring customer data is destroyed and that non-working electronics are not exported to developing countries.

“For these reasons, Samsung, through its global policy and fulfilment in the USA, preferentially chooses to work through recyclers which adhere to the e-Stewards standard,” Newton said.

While only 25 states have laws for electronic waste, many of these laws require states to establish statewide recycling programs. Several states require manufacturers to accept and pay for the recycling of their products. In addition, direct consumers are impacted as many of the laws require consumers to recycle their electronic waste as opposed to dumping the electronics in the traditional trash.

As Nelson explained, many bills that have been introduced regarding electronic waste have gone through multiple iterations. Most of the electronic waste bills re-introduced repeatedly do not get passed. Two of these bills have surfaced again fairly recently, the ‘Secure E-Waste Export and Recycling Act’ (SEERA), which would make it illegal at the federal level to export untested and non-working electronics overseas and the ‘Right-to-Repair’ bills.

“For years the USA has been a big exporter of electronic waste and China was one of our biggest buyers,” Nelson said. “If passed, the bill would protect the environment but it also has further implications of protecting the USA from counterfeit microchips placed in devices that end up back at the USA’s front door.”

The ‘Right-to-Repair’ bills are separate bills that have been re-introduced in over 15 states in 2019. These bills push for laws that would require producers of electronics to enable consumers to have more options for repairs.

According to Nelson, planned obsolescence is a key barrier to the ‘Right-to-Repair’ bills getting passed.

“Planned obsolescence describes ‘a strategy of deliberately ensuring that the current version of a given product will become out of date or useless within a known time period,” Nelson said. “This proactive move guarantees that consumers will seek replacements in the future, thus bolstering demand.”

Planned obsolescence describes ‘a strategy of deliberately ensuring that the current version of a given product will become out of date or useless within a known time period. This proactive move guarantees that consumers will seek replacements in the future, thus bolstering demand

Newton added that a successful e-waste recycling law is one that considers the interests of all stakeholders and works to be fair to each. “Samsung prefers laws which allow us to choose which recyclers we work with in order to recycle electronics responsibly,” Newton said. “This also allows us to ensure conformance with our standards, which exceed legal requirements. Successful laws also provide for the convenient collection of e-waste from consumers and allow a variety of collection methods such as permanent collection drop-off at public or private institutions, collection events or mail-back.”

For example, Samsung is involved with the Electronics Recycling Representative Organization (ERRO), a non-profit organization dedicated to implementing a fair and equitable recycling plan in the state of Illinois. Under this plan, counties sign up to collect e-waste and manufacturers are assigned counties based on their proportional market share. Manufacturers then employ recycling vendors to collect and responsibly recycle electronics that are collected through the opt-in county network. In this system, consumers have access to recycling solutions, manufacturers can choose their recyclers and are not burdened by unrealistic recycling collection targets.

Challenges aplenty
Today’s electronics can do more with less than their counterparts from 10 years ago. They often boast features that are multifunctional, lighter, thinner and are more efficient and use fewer materials.

“However, existing e-waste regulations are 10 years old and contemplate different products than those being designed today,” Newton said. “As regulations evolve they should take into account the fact that substances of concern like lead and mercury have largely been phased out and the average weight of products is contracting because of a shift toward mobile products and the obsolescence of technologies such as CRTs.”

As regulations evolve they should take into account the fact that substances of concern like lead and mercury have largely been phased out and the average weight of products is contracting because of a shift toward mobile products and the obsolescence of technologies such as CRTs

As Nelson explained, the recycling industry could easily point to the speed of changes in technology, planned obsolescence as well as other factors as key barriers for electronic waste regulations and legislation.

“That would be the easy way out, but the truth is that one of the key challenges for electronic waste legislation getting passed is consumers,” Nelson said. “Consumers will ultimately lead the call for change in electronic waste on all fronts. When electronic waste starts to impact the health and safety of consumers in the USA, change will be expedited. As consumers become more educated about electronic waste and start voting with their dollars, change will be expedited. This change will be expedited by the producers, recycling industry and legislation.”

The lack of consumer awareness and direct impact, unfortunately, hold back legislation that could possibly incentivize more companies in the manufacturing and recycling industries to make changes in their current processes and pursue sustainable solutions.

So where is the future of e-waste headed? Nelson said companies such as ERI are already leading the way through the use of AI technology and co-bot technology. Through the new technology, they are able to use a co-bot to load, shred and separate mercury and other toxic materials from LED and LCD panels.

“This technology is blazing a new frontier for the industry,” Nelson said. “Other companies like Klean Industries are leading the way through the use of blockchain – creating greater visibility and accountability in the e-waste recycling and disposal process. Innovation and technology have the ability to act as a vaccine in solving the e-waste issues that are prevalent in society.”

Other companies like Klean Industries are leading the way through the use of blockchain – creating greater visibility and accountability in the e-waste recycling and disposal process

In addition, the resurgence of the ‘Secure E-Waste Export and Recycling Act’ (SEERA) (H.R. 3559), that was recently re-introduced in the US House of Representatives will also be a determining factor for the future of e-waste recycling and disposal.

“If the bill is passed, recycling companies across the USA would need to reconsider the cost to change their practice of shipping e-waste overseas,” Nelson said. “This could also be a key incentive to focus on R&D to come up with new ways to innovate in the industry. Right now, there is less incentive for many of the companies in the recycling industry to change their revenue model and cost allocations. If the bill passes, it will create a great incentive.”

According to Newton, we not only need to rethink the way our programs and regulations look, but recyclers and the industry need to be poised to innovate to meet the constantly changing market conditions.

“Technologies that use robotics for sorting will help increase throughput while providing better accuracy,” Newton said.

“Innovations such as BAN’s EarthEye GPS service, which Samsung adopted, offers a global system for tracking electronic waste through to final disposition. Technologies that do a better job of extracting valuable commodities must be explored. Ultimately, the goal is to continue to advance to a circular economy, and to close the loop so that products being put to market are designed to retain value and ultimately to return to the market as a new product through recovery, remanufacturing and recycling processes.”

(We wish to thank American Recycler for the kind permission to republish this article.)

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