Legislation in numerous states is sending a clear message to computer manufacturers: You are accountable for what happens to products when their useful life is done.
Efforts include model legislation for end-of-life electronics crafted by 10 Northeast states last month, a similar initiative in the Midwest and a bill passed this year in Washington state. But recyclers have varying opinions as to whether the initiatives will increase recycling.
``They are trying to appeal to a lot of stakeholders without advancing anyone's interests,'' said Neil Peters-Michaud, president of Cascade Asset Management LLC of Madison, Wis., which refurbishes, disassembles and recycles information-technology equipment, including computers.
``We have some issues'' with an approach that places the sole responsibility for recycling on producers because ``it doesn't contain an incentive for consumers to see their role in recycling.''
He is concerned that large original equipment manufacturers will bypass smaller recyclers in favor of larger companies. Another worry is that OEMs will swoop in to serve large urban areas and leave smaller firms to serve rural areas, where it can be more expensive to recycle because of lower volumes and higher transportation costs.
However, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. said it supports the Washington state law, signed March 24; the efforts of the 10-state Northeast Recycling Council in Brattleboro, Vt.; and the five-state Midwest Regional Electronic Waste Recycling Policy Initiative, spearheaded by the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance in St. Paul.
In a separate initiative, Washington, D.C.-based ISRI late last month issued voluntary electronics recycling guidelines.
Under the NERC model law approved last month, manufacturers of computers, computer monitors, televisions and laptops would have to pay an annual $5,000 registration fee.
They also would be required to collect, transport and recycle electronic equipment equal to their product sales in a state or pay a fee - based on product weight - into a fund that would be used to cover the cost of recycling. Companies could provide their own sales data or have their fee calculated, based on a formula that takes into account national sales and the population in a given state.
According to NERC, once the glass is removed from computers and monitors, 90 percent of the weight is plastics.
Lynn Rubinstein, NERC executive director, said lack of a national policy and growing electronics waste-disposal problems prompted state officials to develop the model legislation. The legislation also calls for a landfill ban on those products two years after enactment.
Vermont already has passed a disposal ban on consumer electronics that goes into effect July 1, 2007.
The Minnesota House of Representatives will begin discussions this week on a bill that passed the state Senate last year.
More than 20 states have introduced bills related to end-of-life recycling for electronic products.
``We support both of the processes that are moving forward and the Washington bill,'' said Eric Harris, director of governmental and international affairs for ISRI. ``It would be a challenge if every state decides to have its own legislation.''
Harris cited the Washington bill, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2009, as a good approach because it allows manufacturers to develop their own plans or to enroll in a state program.
There is no fixed fee in the Washington bill, which also mandates that free recycling services be provided for residents, schools, small businesses and nonprofit groups.
``If you take into account [the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment initiative in the European Union], the trend is clear,'' Harris said. ``Everyone is leaning toward a manufacturer-responsibility approach.'' The WEEE directive requires manufacturers of a much larger group of items to take back their products.
Washington officials estimate that between 2003 and 2010, 9.5 million computers, monitors and flat-panel television monitors will have become obsolete in their state. Other estimates suggest that 40 million computer systems become obsolete each year in the U.S. But Rubinstein said there are no accurate numbers: ``There is no good data. The numbers are all made up out of thin air.''
Maine, California and Maryland also have laws governing recycling for electronic products. Maine's law places the cost of recycling on manufacturers and, effective July 20, bans the disposal of TVs and computer monitors. California in March 2005 enacted a point-of-sale consumer tax ranging from $6-$10. An estimated 50 million pounds of televisions and computers were recycled in California in the program's first year.
Under the Maryland law, which went into effect in July, manufacturers selling more than 1,000 computers had to pay a $5,000 registration fee in January and establish a computer take-back program to recover their systems at no cost to consumers. Manufacturers that enact acceptable take-back programs and properly label their computers with their names will pay a $500 fee in subsequent years; those that do not will continue to pay $5,000 annually. The Maryland electronics law will expire Dec. 31, 2008.