In 2009, Americans bought 438 million new computers, televisions, phones, tablets and other consumer electronics, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In many cases, those new items replaced older models left obsolete—or, at least, no longer desirable—by the industry's constant push to create, and sell, ever-new updates and features.
So what happens to those so-last-year phones and laptops? Five million tons of electronics are sitting "in storage," the EPA says; 2.37 million tons, almost half of them televisions and computer monitors, are ready for "end-of-life management"—in other words, the tech graveyard. And only 25 percent of those tons are collected to be recycled.
If waste disposal is a worrisome problem in the U.S. in general, disposal of electronics comes with its own specific worries. As the EPA notes, "The intensive energy and diverse material inputs that go into manufacturing electronics represent a high degree of embodied energy and scarce resources." And because electronics are made with lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxins that can leach into groundwater, they pose significant public health risks if not disposed of properly .
Recently, Massachusetts lawmakers took a big step toward addressing the problem of electronics disposal. On Nov. 15, the legislative Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture voted favorably on a bill that would make manufacturers responsible for collecting and disposing of old electronics. Such a law, supporters say, would save money for both consumers and cash-strapped municipalities, and would inspire the industry to focus on making products that can be easily recycled.
But before the bill becomes law, it will have to make it through the Ways and Means Committee, then come for a vote before the full Legislature. Along the way, it will face stiff resistance from retailers and manufacturers.
The bill, called "An Act to Require Producer Responsibility for Collection, Reuse, and Recycling of Discarded Electronic Products," would require producers to fund the collection and recycling of discarded electronics, commonly known as "e-waste." That would relieve municipalities of the financial burden of handling those products, and make it more likely that consumers will dispose of them properly, rather than tossing them out with their regular trash, backers say. According to the Mass. Municipal Association, in 2007, Massachusetts cities and towns spent a combined $1.8 million to handle e-waste. The bill would allow manufacturers to use existing municipal recycling programs, but would require them to pick up the cost for all electronics processing.
The e-waste bill is part of a larger "extended producer responsibility" effort that seeks to make manufacturers responsible for the end-life of their goods. Such policies, argues Clean Water Action of Massachusetts, a major supporter of the e-waste bill, would give producers "a financial incentive to re-design their products to be less toxic, more durable, and easier to recycle."
The bill's co-sponsors include, from Western Mass., state Reps. Brian Ashe (D-Longmeadow), Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), John Scibak (D-South Hadley) and Ellen Story (D-Amherst), and Sens. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) and Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield).
An earlier version of the e-waste bill died in the Ways and Means Committee in the last legislative session, despite pressure from municipalities around the commonwealth. City councils and select boards in 182 communities—including Holyoke, Springfield, Northampton and Amherst—have passed non-binding resolutions calling for the bill's passage. In a May, 2011 letter to the Joint Committee on Environment, Geoffrey Beckwith, the MMA's executive director, wrote that electronics are "the fastest growing portion of the municipal solid waste stream" in the state.
"E-waste recycling costs communities hundreds of thousands of dollars per year just for the recycling and disposal charges, in addition to the uncalculated costs of administration, collection and transportation," Beckwith wrote.
Twenty-five other states already have e-waste laws on their books. But for Massachusetts to join them, the e-waste bill will have to get past strong industry opposition.
At a committee hearing on the bill last May, William C. Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts—which claims more than 3,200 member companies across the state—testified that his association "recognizes that electronic waste and the future disposal of electronic products is a very important issue," but that it's one best addressed on the federal level.
"What is needed in order to protect the seamless flow of interstate commerce is a comprehensive nationwide approach to the financing, collection, transportation and recycling of discarded electronic products," Rennie said in his testimony. Because no federal system is in place, he said, individual states have taken on the issue, "opening up the potential for a patchwork of different and conflicting laws, making compliance difficult for multi-state retailers."
Rennie argued that the e-waste bill would put undue burdens on Massachusetts retailers, making it hard for them to compete with online retailers and retailers in neighboring states without a similar law. (New Hampshire is the only other New England state without an e-waste law.) The Retailers Association also noted that a number of electronics manufacturers and retailers already have voluntarily instituted recycling programs in the state.
Supporters of extended producer responsibility efforts say the policies would actually have economic benefits. "More Jobs, Less Pollution: Growing the Recycling Economy in the U.S.," a recently released report from the BlueGreen Alliance—made up of environmental and organized labor groups—makes the case for recycling as a growth industry. Right now, about one-third of the nation's municipal solid waste and construction and demolition waste is diverted from the trash stream, according to the report. If that figure were increased to 75 percent by 2030, it would result in 2.3 million jobs, the authors say.