With electronic waste streams mounting each year, states across the nation are attempting to tackle the problem through a wide range of new regulatory schemes. We are keeping close tabs on the dynamic patchwork of state regulation of e-waste for many of our clients. In this series of posts, I will examine and summarize the e-waste laws in select states. This post contains a primer on e-waste.

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste is a general term that includes all electronic items that are discarded by their original owners and destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling or disposal. Examples include computers, monitors, cell phones, televisions, and scanners. Such waste is often referred to as e-waste, e-scrap or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).

What are the environmental risks of e-waste?

The Environmental Protection Agency offers the summary of environmental risk related to e-waste:

Lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame retardants are among the substances of concern in electronics. These substances are included in the products for important performance characteristics, but can cause problems if the products are not properly managed at end of life.

Lead is used in glass in TV and PC cathode ray tubes as well as solder and interconnects; older CRTs typically contain on average 4 lbs of lead (sometimes as much as 7 lbs in older CRTs), while newer CRTs contain closer to 2 lbs of lead.

Mercury is used in small amount in bulbs to light flat panel computer monitors and notebooks.

Brominated flame retardants are widely used in plastic cases and cables for fire retardancy; the more problematic ones have been phased out of newer products but remain in older products.

Cadmium was widely used in ni-cad rechargeable batteries for laptops and other portables. Newer batteries (nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion) do not contain cadmium.

How are states managing e-waste?

State regulatory schemes vary and are in constant flux. To date, 19 states and New York City have enacted e-waste laws. The scope of products covered by e-waste laws vary. For instance, the e-waste law in Illinois applies broadly to nearly all manner of electronic products, while the laws in Oregon, West Virginia and Maryland apply only to computers, laptops, monitors, and televisions.

The regulatory requirements also vary. Some states, such as Illinois and Connecticut, now ban disposal of computers and other electronic products in landfills. In an effort to increase recycling of e-waste (so-called “ecycling”), some states have put the financial burden on the consumer, while others put it on the producer. Hence, states like California require consumers to bear the cost of ecycling programs through payment of a fee at the time of purchase. In other states, such as Maryland and Minnesota, producers bear this cost based on their market share. Another model requires the producer to establish e-waste take back programs, such as in New York State.