Recycling E-Waste: Who’s Responsible?

Elementary school students are conscientious citizens of the earth. They recycle everything. Across the country, aluminum cans, newspapers, and milk cartons are diligently sorted into different colored bins for proper recycling. Try throwing an empty soda bottle in the trash in front of an elementary school student—they simply will not allow it.

If they can take the time to keep us honest about recycling harmless products like paper and plastic, why are we having such a hard time figuring out what to do with truly harmful materials?

In particular, the toxic materials contained in landfilled computers, monitors, and other electronic equipment pose health threats that range from birth defects to cancer. Because of consistent failure to adhere to proper disposal procedures, the United States is facing a crisis created by record amounts of electronic waste.

e-Waste is now the fastest growing waste category in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that American consumers and businesses will dispose of two million tons of used electronics this year alone, including 133,000 PC’s daily.

Even though the EPA requires entities that generate more than 220 pounds of monitor waste per month (approximately 10 monitors) to handle the equipment as hazardous waste, and bans the dumping in landfills, less than 10% of all e-waste is being recycled. Where is it all going?

Unfortunately, up to 80% of the tech trash generated in the U.S. is shipped to dumping grounds overseas, a practice which is currently legal. Many so-called recycling companies simply load electronics onto shipping containers and send them to less-developed countries like China, Nigeria and Vietnam.

While many argue this used computer equipment will help spur development in these countries, the reality is the majority of the equipment is truly useless. It is simply cheaper to dump it overseas than to properly recycle it in the U.S. Consequently, serious health issues stemming from third-world tech dumps are rampant and on the rise.

While an increasing number of corporate executives are insisting on contracting with disposal partners who will act responsibly by recycling in the U.S., many more struggle with finding a cost-effective solution that complies with the law.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing executives today is deciphering the disposal and recycling laws, which differ greatly on a federal, state and local level.

The Feds vs. The States

On a federal level, the EPA considers most computer equipment hazardous waste. The EPA can levy fines on companies that fail to meet certain requirements for the accumulating, handling, shipping and disposing of computers. Criminal sanctions can even be brought against executives who knowingly fail to plan for proper disposal.

But, while the EPA tells us what not to do, it offers no formal plan showing how to handle computer waste.

It is on the state level that a new battle is being fought, as states have the ability to enforce more stringent regulations than the EPA. The central issue goes from how to recycle these materials, to who should pay for it.

Four states—California, Maine, Maryland and Washington—already have laws in place. Nineteen others are hotly debating the topic within their state legislatures. The argument usually falls into one of two camps: require consumers to subsidize recycling by paying a fee at the point of sale, or place the burden of cost onto the original manufacturer.

Whether the burden falls on the consumer or the manufacturer, these states are sending a clear message: An infrastructure must be built to give businesses and individuals alike a defined method for disposing their used computers.

However, keeping up with different laws can be confusing for companies with inter-state operations. Many are hoping for a federal electronics recycling program, but until that happens, there are some basic steps companies can take to help protect themselves.

First and foremost, companies must appoint a disposal coordinator, one person with ultimate responsibility for taking reasonable steps towards proper computer disposal. This individual would be responsible for drafting a written plan regarding proper disposal procedures that everyone, including state or EPA regulators, could refer to.

In addition to learning local laws everywhere his or her company does business, this coordinator should conduct due diligence on any and all third parties used to dispose of equipment.

During this process, the coordinator needs to ask plenty of questions:

  • Is this disposal company a true recycler or simply a collector of used equipment?
  • Will computers and monitors be de-manufactured down to raw materials, and if so, where do these raw materials go?
  • Does the partner maintain a zero landfill/zero export policy?
  • Can the company provide a certificate of recycling?
  • And finally, the coordinator should visit the recycling facility in person to make sure it is doing what it said it would.
  • By asking these questions, companies can find a disposal partner that not only follows state and EPA guidelines, but also one committed to the proper handling of electronic scrap.

    Our children are doing such an outstanding job of sorting and recycling. Let’s hope that we can decipher the myriad recycling legislation, because after all, we grown-ups are supposed to be the ones leading by example.

    Jonathan Zigman is a senior vice president for St. Louis-based CSI Leasing, an independent IT leasing company that also sanitizes, resells and recycles approximately 10,000 pieces of equipment each month.