It’s all fun and games until the batteries go dead
CalRecycle Initiative Aims to Strengthen E-Waste Program
In 2003, California passed the Electronic Waste Recycling Act (SB 20, Sher, Chapter 526), which established the Covered Electronic Waste (CEW) program. In the 15 years since its passage, approximately 2.2 billion pounds of covered video display devices have been recycled.
However, the electronics industry is rapidly changing, and there are now hundreds of devices not covered by SB 20. In response, CalRecycle is working to expand the program to include all devices that require a battery or a plug and is exploring ways to strengthen California’s e-waste recycling infrastructure.
In California alone, consumers buy more than 120 million electronic devices every year. That’s an average of about three new devices per year per Californian.
The CEW Program is a funding system for the collection and recycling of certain electronic wastes—specifically, video display devices with screen sizes larger than 4 inches. This includes old televisions and computer monitors that contain cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and newer devices like liquid crystal display (LCD) televisions, laptops, portable DVD players, and tablets. Consumers pay a fee on these devices at the time of purchase, and CalRecycle uses the fees to pay CEW collectors and recyclers to offset the cost of processing and recycling the material.
It is illegal to landfill electronic devices, including electronic devices not included in the CEW Program. Recyclers, however, find it difficult to turn a profit by collecting and processing smaller devices that have lower scrap values.
Since CalRecycle pays electronic waste collectors and recyclers based on the weight of the items they collect, they receive less money for newer, lighter devices. For example, an old, 20-pound, rabbit-eared TV is going to be worth much more to a recycler than a newer, 2-pound, portable DVD player.
Some recycling businesses understand that consumers want a one-stop recycling option, so they collect and properly manage devices not covered by SB 20 to draw consumers to their recycling center to drop off heavier e-waste. However, many recycling businesses cannot afford to manage those materials not covered by the program and have starting charging a fee to consumers who bring in printers, small household appliances, stereos, TVs, and solar panels. This trend could discourage consumers from properly managing e-waste and tossing it out with the trash.
CalRecycle staff has been working with stakeholders and researching CEW management approaches in other states and other countries, and has drafted a list of recommendations to enhance and expand California’s program for the state Legislature. E-waste Futures Project leaders Teresa Bui and Shirley Willd-Wagner presented the recommendations at CalRecycle’s May monthly public meeting,
Among CalRecycle’s top recommendations is to expand the number of products in the CEW Program. CalRecycle would like California to adopt the European Community’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE). The WEEE Directive definition of electronic devices is the most comprehensive approach to ensure proper environmental management of all electronics and to maximize material recovery. It includes all equipment that is dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields. The general rule of thumb is that if it has a battery or needs a power supply, it’s covered under WEEE.
“The WEEE Directive is very broad and inclusive,” says Bui. “We want the broadest scope possible to maximize resource conservation and minimize public and environmental harm.”
Since such an ambitious goal would be difficult to implement immediately in full, CalRecycle proposes to first focus on products with a battery or mercury lamp to provide the greatest protection for human health and safety. If the Legislature were to amend current statute to reflect this recommendation, CalRecycle would begin a regulatory process and work with impacted stakeholders to establish new fees.
Willd-Wagner says, “By having a phased approach, we can initially add products that are known to pose fire risks at recycling facilities while we continue to work with stakeholders to design implementation plans for additional products.”
CalRecycle’s other recommendations include increasing public education and awareness, strengthening and increasing manufacturer responsibility, providing incentives for repair and reuse, establishing new market development programs including grants and loans, initiating new research, streamlining the claim documentation process, seeking legislative authority to adjust payment rates annually, and changing fee collection from the retailer level to the manufacturer level.
The E-Waste Futures Project also flagged two emerging technologies that need end-of-life management: solar panels and lithium batteries from electric vehicles. CalRecycle plans to continue research and discussion with stakeholders on those issues.
Deputy Director Howard Levenson says the recommendations are paving the way for a holistic approach to managing electronic waste.
“With the rapid pace of evolving technology,” he says, “CalRecycle can be on the forefront of developing programs that will promote the circular economy by focusing on the entire electronic product lifecycle rather than just end-of-life management.”