MARCH 2009


California’s electronics waste practices shared

American Recycler recently spoke with Jeff Hunts, Electronic Waste Recycling Program manager at the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB), to learn more about the effects and progress of e-cycling legislation in California.

Since SB 20 (California’s Electric Waste Recycling Act) was enacted in 2003, what has been the volume of material processed in California and what are your expectations for growth in the future?

Hunts: Beginning in January 2005 and continuing through mid-2008, the program saw continued growth in the volume of covered electronic waste (CEW) recovered and recycled, with over 500 million pounds of CEW having been processed and claimed in the first four years of operation. The volume of CEW recovery appears to have stabilized somewhat recently, and may even decline a bit due to current economic conditions. However the digital television (DTV) transition could provide for some increased volume in 2009, and there are certainly vast quantities of aging electronic equipment yet to be discarded.

The Act addresses only the handling on CEW. It is well understood that participating collectors and recyclers in California’s electronic waste program are also handling significant quantities of mixed e-wastes – everything from CPUs and cell phones to printers and FAX machines – often in quantities similar to CEW. While certain notification and annual reporting requirements exist for miscellaneous electronic waste, the precise amount handled is difficult to determine, since the fate of that material ranges from repair and reuse/resale, to domestic processing, to export.

How has the passage of SB 20 jumpstarted the e-cycling industry infrastructure in California? Do you have any numbers in terms of jobs created, capital investment and tax revenue generated?

Hunts: The Act has definitely fostered growth in the state’s electronic waste recycling infrastructure. California currently boasts over 60 approved recyclers that are supplied by a network of nearly 700 approved collectors. This infrastructure is also supplied by a substantial universe of material handlers (asset managers, scrap dealers, thrift organizations, waste operations, etc.) that may not be directly participating in the program. The CIWMB has not calculated the entire economic impact of the program, however the State has paid out close to $250 million for the recovery and recycling of CEW.

It has cost the State of California several million dollars to administer the SB 20 program since the law was passed. Has the CIWMB found ways to reduce the cost and paperwork and has the expense been justified in terms of the amount of material processed?

Hunts: To implement and administer the program, the CIWMB works in partnership with the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) and the California Board of Equalization (BOE), which is the business tax and revenue agency responsible for collecting the remitted consumer fees from retailers. Obviously there are costs for State oversight of the program: ensuring that proper payment is disbursed for eligible operations, that materials are properly handled, and that revenues from the consumer fee are secured. Of the approximately $120 million budgeted to the program in fiscal year 2008/09, far less than ten percent was used for State operations. The balance was passed through as payments.

The CIWMB works in partnership with the participating recyclers to find efficiencies within the scope of the governing regulations. The State must balance any initiative to reduce the documentation and recordkeeping requirements with the need to maintain fiscal integrity in the program and to detect and deter fraud. Requiring the name and address of a generator of a television or monitor is a small burden to bear when the State may be paying out $20 to $30 to see that the device is properly recycled.

The success of the program can be judged by the availability of recycling opportunities for all Californians – over 35 million of them – and by the way organizations are finding ways to incorporate the cost relief offered by the program into the services they offer to their clients.

How has SB 20 helped to extend the lifespan of landfills in California and what are some of the positive effects for the environment within the state and neighboring states?

Hunts: Electronic waste in general, and covered electronic waste in particular, is considered hazardous waste in California and is not allowed to be disposed in municipal landfills. Because of that, the CEW recycling program is not considered to be saving vast amounts of disposal capacity.

No doubt some CEW ends up improperly disposed, and the program provides financial relief for CEW recovered through load check activities. The less difficult it is to properly recycle an old television or monitor in the first place, the more likely it will be correctly managed.

While other states have a preference for producer responsibility, what would you say are the advantages of an upfront fee system and is it possible to blend SB 20 with the producer responsibility philosophy?

Hunts: The CIWMB is watching with interest the operational experience of other states that have adopted different approaches. The CIWMB is also actively evaluating producer responsibility models for a range of other problematic wastes. The variety of materials, political landscapes and economic conditions in different locations warrant experimentation with a variety of approaches. One size probably does not fit all.