01 Aug Computer recycling: An environmental mandate the private sector can support
Madison, Wis. – Chances are, your business has some sort of method of disposing of its old computers when they are no longer needed. The company might send them to an asset management company, leasing firm, or recycler. It might donate the computers to a charity.
But what does your home look like? Are your closets or basements cluttered with computers the kids refuse to use or a TV that’s forever lost its remote?
The difference may be due to the uneven standards applied by the law to business versus household computers. According to current hazardous waste rules, which govern computer disposal requirements in Wisconsin, a business or institution cannot dispose more than 220 pounds of electronic devices that contain hazardous materials at a landfill in any given month.
Households and organizations generating less than this amount can put that same Dell computer or Sony TV on the curb, watch it be crushed in a city packer truck, and hauled away to the local dump. From 2003 to 2005, that amounted to one million computers sent by Wisconsin residents to our landfills, according to the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Recent reports in the media alert us to a change in the air. The front page of the July 24 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that, “[Wisconsin] officials recently joined with four other Midwestern states to formulate a policy that, if approved by their legislatures, will lead to banning home desktop computers, laptops, monitors, and televisions from going into landfills.”
If we take a closer look at the direction public policy is taking on electronics recycling, we’ll find that business have a lot to gain from across-the-board landfill bans and the accompanying financing systems proposed to support the collection and responsible processing of old electronics.
The business standard
First of all, businesses already are required by law to keep their old electronics with lead, mercury, cadmium, and toxic elements out of landfills. The current discussion of landfill bans will only help to clarify what products must be diverted from the landfill, and require households to follow the same requirements placed on businesses for the past 30 years under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Many companies already pay a processor to handle their computers for responsible recycling, and increased demand for computer recycling brought on by landfill bans would benefit businesses by reducing the price they pay for disposal. Through the Office of Technology Policy, the United States Department of Commerce has issued a 152-page report that included a discussion on this topic, noting that “recyclers say they need more volume and steady volume to drive costs and recycling fees. A larger industry allows for better capitalized firms and therefore the development of more effective competition.”
Ironically, businesses already fund government programs to support state, municipal, and some private computer-recycling programs in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin recycling surcharge assesses a tax of $25 to $9,800 on many businesses to fund recycling and solid-waste reduction programs. More than $2 million from that fund has been diverted since 1997 to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to provide free or very low-cost computer recycling services to state agencies, municipal collection programs, and even some private businesses looking to take advantage of the program.
Businesses already are required to keep their old computers out of the landfill on their dime, while the state takes money from the Recycling Fund to offset its own computer recycling costs. Private businesses should be outraged.
The final component of the recent Department of Natural Resources’ policy endorsement relates to how an ongoing computer recycling infrastructure should be financed. First, nearly everyone is in agreement that the taxpayer should not pay for computer disposal, since not every taxpayer enjoys the benefits of individual computer use.
There’s also recognition that end-of-life payment fees are regressive and unfair. All those four-year-old computers donated to a local charity by a business will need to be disposed of some time. Under the current model, the financially strapped charity foots the bill, not the Fortune 500 company who initially generated the equipment.
The other financing options being debated spark controversy from a wide variety of stakeholders. The advanced recovery fee instituted by California in 2005 places a fee at the point of purchase on certain video display devices, and is used to reimburse collectors and processors for later handling these types of devices. The producer-responsibility model, enacted by Maine at the beginning of this year, leaves the collection and recycling development and operation costs to the manufacturer.
Consumers pay either way
Both these programs ultimately cost the consumer, whether that consumer is an individual or business. Both models also are gaining momentum. The question is: which financing model eventually will be implemented in Wisconsin?
Scott Manly, director of environmental policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, shared the WMC’s position: “We oppose mandates that increase the cost of doing business and put our companies at a competitive disadvantage.”
But should business categorically oppose any new mandate on electronics recycling? Not in this case.
The business community needs to be more actively involved in drafting the future of electronics recycling in Wisconsin. We cannot leave it to the Department of Natural Resources to develop the new model on its own while we already are required to recycle and act as the taxpayer subsidizing others’ free ride for computer disposal.
Businesses must take the lead and set the stage for building a sustainable, fair, and efficient electronics recycling system. In the end, the business community and the environment can benefit from this new mandate.