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Response to the e-Waste Problem

Response to the e-Waste Problem.When communities became aware of the volumes of lead being placed in their sanitary landfills, they grew concerned. Some communities passed laws to encourage recycling and alternative waste management activities. Some banned such waste from landfills; others supported e-waste recycling.

About a quarter of the states passed laws treating CRTs as universal wastes. The universal waste rules are clear and simple standards for managing widely distributed hazardous wastes where the full hazardous waste requirements would be overly burdensome. The intent of the universal waste rules is to get hazardous waste out of the sanitary waste stream but without the rigorous requirements protections intended for industrial process wastes at factories and similar facilities. Essentially, the universal waste rules are a middle-ground between the household and conditional exempt generator rules, which exempts waste from controls and the full RCRA Subtitle C hazardous waste rules. EPA has established universal waste rules for items such as mercury thermostats, spent lead-acid batteries, unused pesticides, mercury thermostats and fluorescent lamps. An EPA advisory group that included state, federal, and environmental and industry representatives recommended to EPA that CRTs be added to the universal waste program to ensure responsible recycling. However, we have learned that instead of requiring universal waste protections, EPA plans to finalize regulations that essentially deregulate these wastes if sent to domestic recyclers. EPA’s proposed exemption from RCRA for CRT glass, if followed by the states, would represent a regrettable rollback in environmental protection.

The universal waste requirements that some states have in place for computers and CRTs provide for proper packaging, labeling, and tracking of shipments of CRTs sent and received to prevent illegal dumping and ensure legitimate recycling. The requirements also include notifying state regulatory officials of CRT waste management activities to allow necessary inspections and compliance. These requirements are appropriate and not unduly burdensome for companies engaged in the commercial collection, processing, and recycling of this type of hazardous waste. The practical and sensible approach is for EPA to apply universal waste standards to all CRT glass destined for recycling at the point of commercial collection. Other electronic waste, including computer hardware and cell phones should likewise be regulated under universal waste rules. The universal waste rules were promulgated for just this type of waste. Those who may argue that deregulation will lead to more recycling may be right. But such unregulated recycling will inevitably lead to improper recycling, taxpayer financed cleanups and public cynicism of recycling. These costs will dwarf the benefits of the possible chance of some increased recycling.

The risks are not imaginary. At the State Hazardous Waste Conference in 2002, many state regulators described the recycling industry as a “low-profit, risky business” with high turnover rates and inadequate insurance. The state regulators cited cases where low cost recyclers were merely sham operations that collected wastes fees, with no intention of doing any recycling. Many of these facilities have since gone out of business leaving contaminated sites for state agencies to clean up. One example occurred in Phelps County, Missouri. According to media reports, The Missouri Department of Revenue found 15,000 abandoned computer monitors. The DNR found someone was running a "computer recycling" business out of a rented building on the property. The owner of the business reportedly told customers he would take the monitors and dispose of them properly. Instead, state investigators say the man took the monitors, the cash and left. Hot sun melted the plastic coverings and rain can cause the lead to run-off into the soil and groundwater. It cost Missouri taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up the mess. By proposing to exclude CRT glass recycling from RCRA and the universal waste rule, EPA would be aiding and abetting this problem.

Despite EPA’s approach, many generators of computer wastes want recyclers to have some “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval. EPA responded by establishing fairly good guidelines in the document Plug-In to eCycling Guidelines for Materials Management. However, these Guidelines are only voluntary and their effectiveness as opposed to a promulgated universal waste standard is unconvincing.