As consumers across the United States become increasingly dependent on technology, the mountain of electronic waste in our landfills continues to pile up. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), e-waste is now the fastest-growing area of the municipal waste stream. The EPA estimates that 2.6 millions tons of electronics were discarded in 2005 alone. Of this huge amount of waste, only 12.6% was recycled—a shockingly low number, especially considering that most electronic goods contain toxic chemicals that can pose health and environmental hazards as they leak into the soil and groundwater in landfills (EPA Office of Solid Waste -- PDF).
The massive amount of e-waste is projected to rise, especially as products become obsolete more quickly and as consumers want the latest and greatest gadgets hit the market. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that consumer electronics sales in the U.S. reached $140 billion in 2006, up 8% from 2005. A 2006 report by the International Association of Electronics Recyclers found that with this sales growth, nearly 3 billion units will be scrapped during the rest of this decade, or 400 million units per year on average (Product Stewardship Institute). At a state level, many legislatures are passing laws to require e-waste recycling and banning landfill dumping. Currently, ten states, as well as New York City, have passed such laws (Electronics TakeBack Coalition). Though the laws vary, they follow one of two basic models. The first type is often called the Extended Producer Responsibility model, which requires the product manufacturers to take responsibility for their products once they are ready for disposal. They must pay for the collection and recycling of the products (Clean Production Action -- PDF). This model is favored by most people in the recycling community because it not only mandates the financial responsibility of the manufacturers, it also gives the companies an incentive to create their products with fewer toxic materials, thus making them cheaper to recycle. Laws in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, New Jersey, New York City, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington have all used this model. The second model, the Advanced Recycling Fee, charges the consumer a recycling fee at the purchase of electronic products. The fee then goes into a statewide fund that is used to reimburse the cost of recycling the goods. This approach, which is used in California, eliminates the responsibility of the manufacturer (Electronics Manufacturers Coalition for Responsible Recycling -- PDF). Though several states are taking steps to eliminate e-waste, there is still much progress to be made. If you live in a state that does not currently have laws in place to manage the onslaught of discarded technology products, write to your legislators and urge them to do so. And, you can also take steps to do your part on a personal level, especially as more and more retailers offer recycling programs and incentives directly to customers. For example, Apple offers a variety of recycling programs for consumers. Their iPod recycling program, conducted through Apple retail stores, offers free disposal and even a 10% discount on purchases of new iPods. Apple also operates a trade-in program for educational and business customers in the U.S. — a policy that has already saved more than 270 tons of e-waste from landfills since its inception in August 2005. Other electronics retailers, such as Dell and HP, also make it easy for consumers to make green choices with their old technology products. Dell will take back any Dell product free of charge, even if you aren't buying anything new, and HP extends a variety of "E-Coupons" that cover most or all of the recycling costs of old items.