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WisBusiness: Manufacturers wary of new e-waste recycling bill

By Kay Nolan
For WisBusiness.com

As sweeping new legislation regarding disposal of electronic waste moves through the Legislature, some technology groups and recycling businesses are lauding the measure even as electronics manufacturers say it places an impossible task on them to control what happens to their products once in the hands of consumers.

The bill, which regulates the disposal of old TVs, computers and other electronics, looks likely to be passed this month.

Once it's signed into law it would go into effect in September 2010. Under the current version of the bill, it will be illegal to dispose of computers, TVs, printers, scanners, DVD players, VCRs, fax machines and laptops in landfills. It requires electronics manufacturers to annually recycle electronics that, by weight, compare to 80 percent of their sales of similar items. A fee will be imposed if there is a shortfall between recycled products and sales.

Manufacturers, however, will be able to include in that weight other electronic items successfully recycled, including cameras and electronic components from other household appliances.

The bill was earlier approved by a Senate vote of 23-10 in June. The state Assembly passed the bill – amended to waive the manufacturers’ shortfall penalties for the first year -- by a vote of 57-37 on Sept 23. If passed, Wisconsin would be the 20th state with similar regulation of so-called “e-waste.”

Some other key points of the legislation:

* The law puts a strong responsibility – backed with penalties – on the manufacturers of electronic products to ensure they are someday properly recycled.

* The reforms encompass a wide variety of household and office items beyond TVs, monitors and consumer electronics, extending to stoves, washing machines and other appliances with digital components.

* The law affects retailers, because manufacturers’ compliance will be calculated by comparing products recycled as a percentage of product sales. Retailers must provide consumers with information on recycling.

* Businesses that sell electronics over the Internet must comply as well.

* The law’s effect will likely save money for consumers, at least initially, as manufacturers, retailers and waste collectors organize opportunities to recycle old electronics for free, instead of charging for the service, as is common now.

* The bill, although aimed at households, also has a new provision to help schools recycle computers.

“We’re very pleased legislators have demonstrated a commitment to protecting Wisconsin residents from serious e-waste related health risks by passing this legislation,” said Thad Nation, executive director of Wired Wisconsin, a nonprofit technology advocacy group, in a press release. “It’s now vitally important that Governor Doyle sign the bill into law, providing a free statewide e-waste collection, recycling, and disposal program for Wisconsin residents.”

But the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group of manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, Samsung Electronics, Apple, IBM, Pitney Bowes, Toshiba America, Microsoft, and others, lobbied against the bill.

“In short, we’re concerned that the performance standards contained in the legislation are arbitrary and fundamentally unfair to manufacturers,” said Valerie Rickman, assistant manager of environmental affairs for the council. “We’re required, under the force of penalties, to collect these devices from consumers, but we have no control over consumers. We can’t control their behavior, yet if we don’t collect these devices, we will be subject to penalties. “

Rickman said some other way is needed to measure the success of the program.

“Part of the concern is that these products have very long life spans. The products they are collecting now are older products that are very heavy. Obviously, the CRT (cathode ray tube) TV that you have sitting in your basement is much heavier than the LCD that you buy to replace it. But recycling targets are based on the products sold today. Over time, as people aren’t getting rid of their old CRTs anymore and are getting rid of their lighter TVs, it’s going to be much harder for manufacturers to meet their obligation.”

Ed Longanecker, executive director of Tech America, an Illinois-based technology trade association, said his group is now appealing to Gov. Doyle not to sign the bill unless it takes a more phased-in approach and is more consistent with regulation in other states. He calls Wisconsin’s bill far more aggressive than those passed by other states. For example, Michigan’s bill does not impose a shortfall penalty on manufacturers, he said.

Wisconsin’s bill, he says, forces manufacturers to meet an aggressive recycling goal in perpetuity, with no mechanism to adjust the goal as market conditions change, he says.

“Our companies are leaders in deriving sustainability, reducing our carbon footprint, removing hazardous substances from their products; they are responsible for complying with very stringent international regulations, and to have this piecemeal approach throughout the United States where each state is a little different, meaning each manufacturer has to comply with different legislation in every state, and there may be fines or penalties with four or five and not 10 other states, it’s very challenging, particularly in this economic climate,” said Longanecker.

“This legislation really fails to recognize that manufacturers are typically several steps removed from end users of their products,” he said.

Manufacturers have a difficult time determining what is ultimately sold to consumers, he said, since they rely on a national network of wholesalers, distributors and retailers to get their products into the hands of millions of consumers.

"Since most manufacturers have virtually no capacity of their own to distribute products, they virtually have no ability or capacity to provide for local collection either, or to provide accurate sales rates, because you could have a distribution center across a state line that is distributing products to a retailer in Wisconsin," he said. "This legislation directs manufacturers to single-handedly develop, fund, manage and implement a parallel solid waste management infrastructure, solely for electronics.”

Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, the bill’s leading sponsor, has little sympathy for manufacturers.

“They put these devices into the stream of commerce. It’s very appropriate that they take responsibility for recycling it, rather than having the public pay for it,” said Miller.

Miller noted the deluge of electronics in recent years, and argued that because electronics become quickly obsolete, consumers typically replace them oftener than other types of products, to take advantage of new features.

“Electronic equipment is the fastest-growing segment of the waste stream,” he said. His office estimates that 10,000 tons of computer monitors and 24,000 tons of TVs are buried in landfills in Wisconsin each year.

In the short term, some say consumers are likely to benefit from the new legislation, as manufacturers seek to make it easier to recycle old units.

Waste Management last month announced an expanded recycling program with American TV, to allow consumers to recycle electronics manufactured by LG, Sony, Zenith and Goldstar for free, by dropping them off at American TV stores. The store chain had originally charged a $10 fee to recycle large televisions over 27 inches, laptops, and computer monitors, when it initiated a recycling drop-off program service in June, but soon dropped the fee, said American TV spokesman Paul Kollberg. He said customers now may drop off any electronics, large and small, from any manufacturer, for recycling, at no cost.

The recent switch by television stations to digital programming has definitely increased disposal of old analog TVs, Kollberg said. “We getting all kinds of things: old stereo receivers, speakers, etc., but a great many TVs. There’s been a pent-up demand for recycling electronics. ”

Other choices for consumers include taking old electronics to designated drop-off sites in their communities. Again, the consumer is often charged a fee.

Lynn Morgan, a spokeswoman for Waste Management, said fees typically range from 30 cents to 40 cents per pound.

“What the law does is make recycling more universally available in the state, and to make it less costly for citizens to get their electronics recycled,” Morgan said. In addition to promotions by manufacturers and retailers, Morgan also predicts an upswing in municipality-sponsored recycling drives.

Waste Management does not pick up electronic items as part of its curbside trash collection, Morgan said, because its vehicles crush items, making it impossible for them to be taken apart to recycle individual materials, such as glass, plastics, etc. Electronics must be taken to special facilities for recycling, she said.

An amendment was added to the Senate bill to allow manufacturers to collect old computers from schools to add to their recycling quota, as long as the manufacturers also include their sales figures to school districts, Miller said.

“The bill was drafted to just refer to household electronic waste, but there was a quite a sentiment among legislators that they wanted to help provide a mechanism whereby schools would be spared some of the expense of recycling their computers.” said Miller.

Recycling of computers and other office equipment for business use is already governed by federal and state hazardous waste laws, he said.

While electronics manufacturers see the new legislation as a hardship, those in the recycling industry see it as a boon, according to Toral Jha, executive director of Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin.

“We represent a broad cross-section of the recycling industry,” said Jha. “We have local government folks, the recycling folks who actually process the materials, nonprofit associations, landfill operators and waste collection professionals. We collectively support the bill because it offers an opportunity to have consistent and constant resources available to our public in terms of electronics collection. And it’s also an opportunity to create jobs in the recycling industry, both for electronics recyclers that exist and the prospect for even more to come into Wisconsin.”

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