Electronic Waste: Making the Case for E-Waste Recycling Programs


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State and Local Policy Approaches for Managing Kentucky’s E-Waste

Introduction
 
Electronic waste, or “e-waste,” is widely recognized as the fastest growing source of waste worldwide.[1] Imagine almost 4500 Eiffel Towers. If you placed these next to each other in one space they would cover an area the size of Manhattan. Those 4500 Eiffel Towers weigh almost 50 million tons, which equals the amount of e-waste generated around the globe each year.[2] By 2050, estimates from the United Nations University in Vienna predict that the volume of e-waste could surpass 120 million tons annually if nothing changes.[3]
 
Despite the fact that almost all e-waste can be reused, refurbished, or recycled, only 20% is actually handled appropriately due in large part to the lack of regulation and recycling infrastructure. While there is limited data on what happens to the rest, most is likely either dumped into landfills or incinerators or exported to poorer countries where a lack of environmental and safety laws pose a serious hazard to workers, human health, and the environment who salvage metals and other materiel from the e-scrap.[4]
 
Because e-waste contains both valuable precious and special metals, such as gold, silver, and platinum, and hazardous materials such as lead and mercury, end-of-life management of e-waste is imperative in order to protect human health and the environment and to recover valuable components from these products.
 
Yet, there is no federal law in the United States requiring e-waste recycling or banning this waste stream from landfills and incinerators. Instead, states and local governments must create their own programs, which 25 states and the District of Columbia have done with limited success.[5] Kentucky does not ban e-waste from the solid waste stream nor require e-waste recycling, and residents in well over half of Kentucky counties do not have access to any kind of electronic recycling facility or program.[6] While the rate of e-waste recycling in Kentucky is unknown, with lack of action on the federal level it is imperative that steps be taken at the local and state level to ensure this rapidly growing waste stream is managed appropriately and that all Kentucky residents have access to e-waste recycling. 

 
What is E-Waste and Why is it a Problem?
 
While the definition of e-waste varies, in the United States it generally refers to electronic equipment, as well as any of its components, that has reached the end of its useful life. This includes outdated products such as televisions with cathode ray tubes, VCRs, and DVD players, and also includes cell phones, tablets, fitness trackers, laptops, computers, printers, stereos, copiers, and anything else with a circuit board. E-waste comes from a variety of sources, including consumers, governments, and businesses.
 
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 2014, over 720 million new electronics products were sold, while 3.36 million tons of previously used electronics had reached the end of their useful lives and needed to be managed.[7] This is a substantial increase from just 5 years before in 2009 where only 438 million new electronics products were sold and 2.37 million tons of electronics were ready for end of life management. While recycling rates are also increasing, up from less than 1% in 1990 to over 27% in 2009, e-waste continues to be a rapidly growing portion of the solid waste stream in the United States and around the globe.[8]
 
E-waste is also problematic because it can contain many different substances, including lead, mercury, and carcinogenic compounds, that can be harmful to people and the environment if not dealt with appropriately. While e-waste makes up just 2% of the solid waste stream in the United States, it accounts for 70% of the heavy metals deposited into landfills.[9] These substances can pollute water, air, and food supply chains and be harmful to workers in unregulated parts of the world where informal e-waste dumps utilize open burning and other dangerous practices to harvest metals from e-waste. In addition, by not reusing and recycling these products and the valuable materials remaining in them, we contribute to climate change and other environmental problems since more raw materials will be required to be mined and processed or fabricated make new products.
 
In addition, as electronic components are present in more and more products and the number of electronic devices people own continues to rise, the e-waste problem will only get worse unless action is taken. Every person in the United States produces an average of 44 pounds of e-waste per year.[10] As technology continues to increase at an exponential rate and consumers continue to demand the newest and best products, electronic devices will reach the end of their useful lives at a faster rate, resulting in the continued increase in e-waste.
 
Congress has refused to require e-waste recycling nationwide and the United States has declined to join with 188 nations around the world to ratify a treaty that restricts the transboundary international movement of hazardous wastes[11] As a result, states and localities are left to address these problems in a vacuum, which can cause problems for manufacturers trying to comply with a patchwork of regulations. 
 
E-Waste Recycling Presents Untapped Value and Opportunity
 
Despite the growing problems associated with e-waste, there is huge potential for economic value. E-waste contains valuable materials such as gold, copper, silver, platinum, and palladium, among others. If all of the valuable components from e-waste were harvested and sold, the value of e-waste generated each year would be $62.5 billion. This value is slightly more than the GDP of Costa Rica and three times more than the yearly production of all silver mines worldwide.[12] Similarly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we can recover 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium for every 1 million cell phones that are recycled.[13] In the U.S. alone, we discard 1 million cell phones every 2 days. Prices for some of these commodities are unstable and less of these substances are present in increasingly smaller and lighter devices, which cost more to dismantle. However, as recycling technology improves and more and more devices are recycled, a large, untapped economic opportunity existing in e-waste recycling and reuse can be captured. Using current prices for gold of about $1420 per ounce, the value of gold that could be recovered by recycling all of the discarded cell phones in the U.S. each year is over $310 million.[14]
 
Repairing products and reusing their valuable components reduces the carbon footprint associated with new devices and reduces the environmental damage associated with mining raw materials. Ensuring these products are properly and safely recycled protects our environment and health by keeping harmful substances from polluting air and water or damaging the health and safety of workers or those living near incinerators or disposal areas. In addition, an expansion of e-waste recycling has the potential to create jobs, and trained recyclers can alleviate privacy protection concerns by ensuring that sensitive and confidential data is removed from electronic devices during the recycling process. 
 
What is the State of E-Waste Recycling in Kentucky?
 
While the overall recycling rate in Kentucky has remained at a steady 35-40% for a number of years, the rate of e-waste recycling is likely much lower. Kentucky does not require business or consumer e-waste recycling and only 50 of Kentucky’s 120 counties offer any type of e-waste collection program, including drop-off programs and periodic e-waste collection events.[15] Compared to similar states, Kentucky falls far behind in e-waste collection and citizen access to e-waste recycling. For example, in North Carolina 99.4% of citizens have access to electronics recycling and the state collected over 20,000 tons of e-waste for recycling in 2015-2016.[16] In contrast, Kentucky collected only 2,296 tons in 2016.[17]
 
While Kentucky does not have e-waste legislation, it does have a contract with a recycling company that mandates the collection and recycling of all e-waste generate by the executive branch of the state government. The judicial and legislative branches, as well as political subdivisions of the state such as county and city governments, school districts, and universities have the option to use this contract as well. Given that approximately 80% of the e-waste recycled in North Carolina came from local governments, Kentucky has a similar opportunity to significantly expand e-waste recycling in this sector.
 
In addition, while some local government recycling facilities in Kentucky accept e-waste for recycling, almost all cities and counties with this service have only one drop off location, which may not be convenient to a person’s home or workplace. In addition, some cities such as Lexington, do not accept e-waste from businesses. However, there are private companies, retailers, and manufacturers that offer e-waste recycling and periodic events are held by various entities where drop-offs can occur.[18]
Improving E-Waste Recycling in Kentucky: Policy Options and Implications
 
Managing e-waste is challenging given the number of substances contained in devices, the constantly fluctuating values in the commodities market, and the fact that recyclers can often experience increases in costs that make it uneconomical to recycle certain products. While many states are struggling to adapt their e-waste laws to fit the changing dynamics of e-waste, several principles are essential in designing sound e-waste management policies:
 
  • The management of e-waste will require governments to develop legal, policy, and regulatory frameworks to ensure the effective management of e-waste.
 
  • The successful management of e-waste depends on coordination among multiple stakeholders, including manufacturers, consumers, recyclers, and government. All stakeholders should be involved in the policy development process.
 
  • Electronics users must have an incentive to reuse, refurbish, or recycle their products, and drop off locations or other avenues for e-waste collection must be easily accessible. If there is a monetary or time cost and no incentive, mandate, or penalty, there is a low likelihood that consumers will participate in the program.
 
  • E-waste policies should ensure that e-waste management is done in an environmentally sound manner and avoids impacts to human health and human rights.
 
  • Policies should promote the efficient use of resources by first encouraging the reduction of waste, then the direct reuse or products through refurbishment and repair, then the recycling and recovery of materials, and only when there is no alternative, the safe disposal of e-waste.
 
  • Policies should consider the appropriate funding sources for the program, which might include producers, consumers, government, other sources, or a combination of these. Most policies in the United States are based upon the “Extended Producer Responsibility” model that places the responsibility on the manufacturer, but there are others.
 
  • Policies should ensure that e-waste is managed by companies qualified to conduct the relevant activities and able to comply with the policies of the program.
 
  • Any policy should set realistic targets for the collection, reuse, and recycling of e-waste and put programs into place to ensure that these results can be tracked and measured.
 
  • The results of the program should be reviewed regularly and modified as needed to achieve the set goals.
 
  • Education programs are essential to ensure that electronics users are aware of the problems associated with e-waste, are educated about responsible consumption and options for re-use and refurbishment and are aware of the programs available to safely unload their unwanted electronics. Consider partnering with retailers and manufacturers to do this. Include programs targeting education and participation among school-aged children and university students.
 
[1] Lundren, K. “The global impact of e-waste: addressing the challenge.” International Labour Office, Geneva (2012).
[2] World Economic Forum, et. al., “A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot” (January, 2019), available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_A_New_Circular_Vision_for_Electronics.pdf
[3] Id.
[4] Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna. Available at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Climate-Change/Documents/GEM%202017/Global-E-waste%20Monitor%202017%20.pdf
[4] Schultz, Jennifer “Electronic Waste Recycling,” National Conference of State Legislatures (September 17, 2018), available at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/e-waste-recycling-legislation.aspx
[4] Schultz, Jennifer “Electronic Waste Recycling,” National Conference of State Legislatures (September 17, 2018), available at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/e-waste-recycling-legislation.aspx
 
[5] Schultz, Jennifer “Electronic Waste Recycling,” National Conference of State Legislatures (September 17, 2018), available at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/e-waste-recycling-legislation.aspx
[6] Commonwealth of Kentucky, Department for Environmental Protection Division of Waste Management, “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report,” available at: https://eec.ky.gov/Environmental-Protection/resources/2018%20Annual%20Reports/2018%20DWM.pdf
[7] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship: Accomplishments Report” (January 2017), available at: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-08/documents/national_strategy_for_electronics_stewardship_accomplishments_report_final_8_7_17.pdf
[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Electronics Waste Management in the United States through 2010” (May 2011).
[9] Rosenfeld, Paul E. and Lydia G.H. Feng, “Risks of Hazardous Waste” (2011).
[10] Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna. Available at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Climate-Change/Documents/GEM%202017/Global-E-waste%20Monitor%202017%20.pdf
[11] See The Basel Convention, which governs the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes for recovery and disposal. Available at www.basel.int.
[12] World Economic Forum, et. al., “A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot” (January, 2019), available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_A_New_Circular_Vision_for_Electronics.pdf
[13] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Electronic Donation and Recycling,” available at: https://www.epa.gov/recycle/electronics-donation-and-recycling
[14] However, note that gold prices have historically averaged about $700 per ounce from 1970 to 2007. https://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2019/07/29/gold-prices-50-year-price-analysis-and-production-demand-dynamics/#78dd820b7efc.
[15] Commonwealth of Kentucky, Department for Environmental Protection Division of Waste Management, “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report,” available at: https://eec.ky.gov/Environmental-Protection/resources/2018%20Annual%20Reports/2018%20DWM.pdf
[16] Presentation to the Environmental Review Commission about the N.C. Electronics Management Program (February 14, 2018) available at: https://files.nc.gov/ncdeq/DWM/SW/ERC-DEQ-Electronics-Program-presentation_021418.pdf
[17] Commonwealth of Kentucky, Department for Environmental Protection Division of Waste Management, “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report,” available at: https://eec.ky.gov/Environmental-Protection/resources/2018%20Annual%20Reports/2018%20DWM.pdf
[18] Kentucky Recycling Facilities by County (April 10, 2019), available at: https://eec.ky.gov/Environmental-Protection/Waste/recycling-and-local-assistance/Documents/RecyclingFacilities.pdf
By Liz Edmondson, Staff Attorney on 08/01/2019 8:08 AM
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