E-Recycling, California Style

Features - Scrap Industry News

California's Electronic Waste & Recycling Act of 2003 went into effect Jan. 1, but the state is still trying to work out a few kinks.

April 19, 2005

An occasional computer system placed on the curbside is picked up by trash haulers, thrown in a garbage truck and compacted within the bowels of the vehicle. Chances are the monitor is crushed in the process. Once dumped with the rest of the garbage at the local landfill, the lead in the monitor glass is exposed and can potentially leach into groundwater.

Such a scenario was relegated to the world of fiction in the state of California when legislation known as Senate Bill (SB) 20, or the Electronic Waste & Recycling Act of 2003, was signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis in September of 2003, banning the disposal of TVs and computer monitors in landfills.

Sen. Byron Sher, a Democrat from California’s 11th District (whose term has ended), Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste, San Jose-based The Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition and a board of vested stakeholders have collaborated since to fine-tune the bill and to design its implementation.

With the enactment of SB 20, the state established another landmark date that could set a standard for the rest of the country. Beginning Jan. 1, 2005, anyone who purchases an electronic device containing a CRT (cathode ray tube) or flat-panel display, such as a television or computer monitor, will pay a fee to cover recycling costs. Retailers deposit the revenue into a fund the state uses to pay authorized recyclers for dismantling the covered electronic devices, currently TVs, computer monitors and laptops with a screen size of at least 4 inches measured diagonally. Starting July 1, 2005, TVs with plasma and LCD (liquid crystal display) screens will be added to the program.

JUMPING IN. As soon as California decided that monitors and TVs were hazardous in August of 2001, the San Luis Obispo Integrated Waste Management Authority activated five free electronics collection sites.

"We jumped in feet first," says authority Manager William Worrell, who helped with the development of SB 20 regulations.

He says, "It was costing about $100,000 a year to deal with the e-waste stream. Now that it’s being funded by the appropriate source, it removes that entire cost from the authority."

Worrell adds that he’d like to see the same system for paint, pesticide and all the other household hazardous wastes the authority manages.

While the state got off to a rocky start, having pushed back the fee implementation date twice, things appear to be running more smoothly. And it all starts with electronics retailers.

In an Encinitas, Calif., Circuit City, a TV department manager describes the point of purchase process. "When someone buys a TV, the register throws the fee into the tax bracket on the receipt, and it is broken down separately for the customer." Kiosks in the store post information about the law. "Most people have no problem with the fee and are glad something is being done about it," he says.

United Datatech/ECS Refining, Santa Clara, Calif., is an approved collection and recycling facility under one roof, testing refurbished equipment for resale, disassembling equipment for usable components and offering secure data destruction capabilities and three different types of shredders for physical destruction. Because the company is engaged in both processes, Vice President/General Manager Tom Hogye represented United Datatech during the SB 20 formulation process, attending board meetings and offering testing, analysis and tours of the company’s facilities.

Although the state says it is committed to paying participants within a 30-to-45-day range, Hogye says his company would be pleasantly surprised if it occurs. "There might be a hitch in the giddy up that causes a delay until things get rolling. Or maybe we or one of our collectors didn’t fill our paperwork out properly," he says.

After the state pays out the 48 cents per pound of covered e-scrap, recyclers are committed to paying 20 cents per pound to authorized collectors who deliver material to them.

Electronics collectors and recyclers must be registered with the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), though participating in the payment system is voluntary. Once in the system, support is readily available.

Chris Peck, spokesman for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, describes the roles of each agency quite simply: The Board of Equalization (BOE) collects the fees, the Integrated Waste Management Board pays the recyclers, and the DTSC determines what materials are classified as hazardous and which items are covered by the program. The DTSC also inspects potential collectors and recyclers.

Hogye says he has found that "the state has been very supportive. They welcome our phone calls because we ask poignant questions about processes and procedures and how our paperwork should be filled out."

Proper Documentation

Approved collectors of covered electronic waste (CEW) under California’s Electronic Waste and Recycling Act of 2003 must maintain a log that includes a written description of collection activities or events and lists of consumers and other collectors who have transferred CEWs to the collector.

However, collectors can invoke an exemption to these requirements, provided that the collector is registered with the state and is directly associated with the initial collection.

The law allows exceptions for local governments registered as approved collectors that directly operate events or facilities that receive CEWs and for local governments that have contracted with approved collectors.

A complete list of regulations administered by the California Integrated Waste Management Board is at www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Electronics/RegIssues.

To ease Californians into the SB 20 system, government, manufacturers, retailers and the environmental community collaborated to design one Web site (www.eRecycle.org), rather than making stakeholders wade through each associated government agency’s Web site. ERecycle.org not only educates consumers about the Electronic Waste & Recycling Act of 2003, it also walks potential collectors and recyclers through the certification process. This Web site is the logical starting place for companies that want to familiarize themselves with the requirements of the law, DTSC Information Officer Ron Baker says.

"Someone starting from scratch can go to www.eRecycle.org to look at documents for ideas of how to do it, what we look for during inspections, what forms to fill out," he says. The site provides fact sheets, standards and other information for those businesses that recycle components, he adds.

As an example, consumers in Santa Ana, Calif., who have accumulated computer systems and TVs in their households, can feel confident that such electronic devices will be handled appropriately when taken to the now-certified collector Goodwill Industries of Orange County. Facilities Director Randy Taylor says, "We collect the equipment at our two computer stores and sell the systems and parts through these stores. The computer parts or systems we can’t sell [to consumers] we separate and sell to a certified recycler."

Taylor says that he has found the state supportive during the certification process and that he is looking forward to the development of a Goodwill-Dell partnership for curbside collection of unwanted computers that is comparable to the current Austin, Texas, model.

Waste Management, headquartered in Houston, along with its subsidiary Recycle America Alliance (RAA) in San Leandro, Calif., is involved in collection and recycling operations covered under the law. This includes curbside collection, ongoing drop-off programs and disposal facilities and recycling of the materials, Kevin McCarthy, former vice president of Government Affairs-Recycling for RAA says. McCarthy also served as director of electronics recycling for RAA and now is the business development manager for Tierra Verde Industries and E-Recycling of California

From McCarthy’s vantage point, the system is working fine in retail outlets, but questions have been raised about the collection of the fee on Internet sales. McCarthy says, "The people that are selling products via the Internet to purchasers in California are supposed to report those sales. This has nothing to do with, say, Dell, who is registered and fully engaged in participating. It has to do with the state agency working out some rulings on how to collect the money," he says.

WORKING OUT THE KINKS. When any major environmental law goes into effect, problems are anticipated and areas will need to be fine-tuned during the implementation process. For these situations, McCarthy says, there is cleanup legislation. "We’ve already had one bill, SB 50, passed in the fall, that needed some technical changes and was cleaned up. I’m sure there will be [additional] cleanup bills related to SB 20."

The BOE has the ability every two years to review the fee and payment levels. Peck says, "Until we have some experience with the level of sales of covered products that dictate how much received revenue we have to make payments, we don’t really know if the 48 cents per pound we’re paying will cover costs as it’s supposed to do. The whole idea is that it will be in balance at some point in time."

Consumers don’t have to wait until the system is fine-tuned to get rid of their obsolete TVs and computer monitors, however and can be assured that the materials are being handled appropriately when they select authorized recyclers. "SB 20 keeps materials out of facilities that are not properly authorized to handle them, which means we’re protecting public health, safety and the environment," Peck says.

Worrell of the San Louis Obispo Integrated Waste Management Authority looks to the law to make electronics recycling self-sustaining, while McCarthy envisions "consumers having a much easier ability to have these products recycled that were already banned from disposal in California." He adds, "There was sort of an emerging recycling industry for the products. The law is going to dramatically expand that infrastructure."

Even after the law has gone into effect, some businesses are still charging to collect the items covered under the law. McCarthy offers two reasons for that. One reason is that participation in the state’s payment system is voluntary under the law; therefore, a community or private company is not obliged to participate, though they must be authorized by the DTSC. The other reason, McCarthy says, is that "if a company can document that costs exceed what the state is paying them, it can legally still charge fees for services. It’s their choice, whereas sellers and consumers buying covered products don’t have a choice."

Skeptical recyclers may well be quelled by approval of a loan from other parts of state government for the BOE to make timely reimbursements. Without the loan, says Peck, "we wouldn’t actually have had the money in yet to revolve back into making first quarter payments."

Despite the naysayers who disbelieve California’s ability to follow through, Hogye expects "to see other states come on board because it’s a good law and process and they’ll want to be a part of it."

The author is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Mo. She can be contacted at clare@claritivity.com.