There’s little doubt that technology has revolutionized the way we work, go to school, and get our entertainment. The advent of personal computers, cellular telephones, flat screen TVs, and PDAs can add up to a phenomenal amount of waste when those electronic products become obsolete. The average American household has at least two computers collecting dust in a basement or garage. The question is: How does the disposal of these items impact our environment and future generations?
In April New Jersey celebrated the state’s 20th anniversary of our mandatory recycling program. Although there are currently no rules for the mandatory recycling of electronic waste (E-waste), one is pending in the New Jersey Legislature. “The Electronic Waste Recycling Act” (A.3572) will make the recycling of electronic waste mandatory and paid for by the product’s manufacturers. This model for paying for the safe disposal of metals and chemicals that can wreak havoc in our already overburdened state ecosystem makes tremendous sense as it raises no new taxes and can be paid for by manufacturers who will then have an incentive to lower the amount of toxic ingredients in their equipment.
Why is proper disposal so important for New Jersey? The same reasons why other states are concerned. In the United States, over 220 million tons of electronic waste is disposed of improperly each year. These products contain toxic substances including lead, selenium, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, chromium and cobalt — a veritable “who’s who” of the periodic table. When disposed of in landfills and dumps, those toxins seep into the ground and contaminate water supplies, posing a serious health risk to our communities.
Some experts contend that E-waste is soon to become the 21st century’s most challenging toxic waste problem. There is still time to prevent this dilemma from becoming a full-blown environmental disaster.
New Jersey has four options when it comes to E-waste:
1.) do nothing and allow electronic waste to fill our landfills;
2.) recycle the waste solely by the state at a substantial cost to taxpayers;
3.) put the cost of E-waste recycling programs directly on consumers at the time or purchase through an “advanced recovery fee” (ARF) or tax; or
4.) place such responsibility on manufacturers, a model known as “producer responsibility.”
Currently California has an ARF system, while Maine, Washington state, Maryland, and the European Union have “producer responsibility” programs in place.
It is no surprise that California’s product tax model has not gone over well and has been avoided by other states that are addressing this important issue. Conversely, after a two-year study, the Council of State Governments for the Northeast Region determined that the producers of these products are in the best position to take on this problem. It was also the intention of area states not to create a “patchwork” of differing laws, whereby confusion would result among manufacturers, retailers, and consumers alike. As a result, New Jersey’s pending act is modeled after the “producer responsibility” model.
It is the intent of the legislation to put the onus of proper disposal directly on the manufacturer rather than the consumer. Our pending bill requires producers to register with the state and then pay a fee of $.50 per pound of recycled electronic equipment generated by that manufacturer. Producers that already have their own “take back” program would be able to “opt out” of the state system subject to DEP approval.
This legislation accomplishes three important goals. First, the cost of recycling E-waste would be placed squarely with the original product producers.
Second, there would be less administrative costs. Third, and most important, by placing the burden on producers, an incentive is created for manufacturers to design more environmentally-friendly products.
According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “producer responsibility” programs were more cost effective since there is less oversight on manufacturers rather than ensuring thousands of retail outlets collect an “advanced recovery fee” at the time of purchase. It also showed that E-waste under this model was considerably less expensive to collect.
Citizens should not have to pay more taxes to clean the environment — or in this case, to prevent pollution — when a model exists that will exert manufacturers to minimize toxic metals and other elements by creating safer, smarter products. Consumers and retailers have already taken on enormous burdens for properly disposing of dangerous waste. We should minimize their burdens and balance it with responsibility on all stakeholders in the marketplace. In this regard, it is hoped that New Jersey will make the right choice and give the “producer responsibility” model the green light.
Gusciora is an assemblyman and assistant majority leader (D-Princeton) for the New Jersey General Assembly.