Obstacles to Recycling

Despite the large volume of used electronics and the valuable resources contained within them, economic and regulatory factors discourage these products' recycling and reuse. Specifically:

• Consumers generally have to pay fees and drop off their used electronics at often inconvenient locations to have them recycled or refurbished for reuse. Consumers in Snohomish County, Washington, for instance, may have to travel more than an hour to the nearest drop-off location, which then charges between $10 and $27 per unit, depending on the type and size of the product. Consumers in the Portland, Oregon area pay one local recycler 50 cents per pound to have their used computers recycled, which is about $28 for an average-sized desktop computer. Recyclers and refurbishers charge these fees because costs associated with recycling and refurbishing outweigh the revenue received from recycled commodities or refurbished units. This point was underscored by the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, which reported that the value of commodities recovered from computer equipment (such as shredded plastic, copper, and alu-

minum) is only between $1.50 and $2.00 per unit. It was further underscored by our interviews with eight electronics recyclers, who were unanimous in emphasizing that they could not cover costs without charging fees.

• Federal regulatory requirements also provide little incentive for environmentally preferable management of used electronics. First, some used electronics are considered hazardous waste under RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] and RCRA bars entities that generate more than 220 pounds per month of hazardous waste (including some used electronics) from depositing it in landfills. However, RCRA does not bar households and entities that generate less than 220 pounds of hazardous waste per month from this practice. Consequently, since only four states currently ban disposal of used electronics in landfills, most consumers in the remaining 46 states (and the District of Columbia)

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Estimated Number of Obsolete Home Computers

are allowed to do so—and have little incentive to do otherwise. Not surprisingly, data we reviewed suggest that states and localities without landfill bans have dramatically lower levels of recycling than the four states that have enacted landfill bans. Second, federal law does not provide a financing system to recycle used electronics. Absent a consistent financing system to make recycling less costly and more convenient for consumers, a patchwork of potentially conflicting state requirements is emerging that may ultimately place a substantial burden on recyclers, retailers, and manufacturers. The lack of a national financing mechanism has also led to an array of legislative proposals that take very different approaches to address the problem. Third, federal regulations do not provide adequate oversight of these products when exported. This is a particular problem in the case of some developing countries, where risks to the environment and human health may be more likely because less stringent environmental regulations often do not ensure that exported used electronics—supposedly destined for reuse—are not instead being disposed of improperly. Together, these factors hinder EPA's [Environmental Protection Agency] ability to reach its stated goal that within 10 years, it will be as convenient for consumers to take a discarded television or computer for recycling or reuse as it is to purchase a new product.

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