E-Waste Management Through Recycling: An Overview of Product Stewardship

The amount of electronic waste, or “e-waste,” that Americans produce each year continues to grow, which has placed heightened attention on how it can be disposed of in a way that is best for the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 18 percent of the 2.25 million tons of obsolete televisions, cell phones and computers disposed of in 2007 were recycled, while the remainder was primarily disposed of in landfills.

As society’s collective concern for the environment has led us to search for ways to reduce the impact of e-waste on the environment, product stewardship and the concept of producer responsibility have emerged as a promising and compelling strategy for addressing disposal. The primary goal of this movement is to divert waste from landfills and lessen the negative environmental impact of consumerism.

Product stewardship places ultimate responsibility for a product’s proper disposal on the shoulders of companies that make or sell products, and can be applied to many different products, from paints to prescription medication to electronics and batteries. The concept builds upon programs designed to handle potentially dangerous products -“ such as lead acid batteries -“ or for products with residual value in their reuse, like newspaper. These programs, though vulnerable to the fluctuation of commodity prices, are by almost all measures successful, ensuring that products are reused and bypass the waste stream.

Over the last several years, the notion has expanded to include electronics and other products that may not be hazardous. In North America, several provinces in Canada (e.g., Ontario and British Columbia) and state and local governments (e.g., New York City, Vermont, Maine and Oregon) are in various stages of considering or implementing product stewardship programs that cover products ranging from cell phones and televisions to batteries and computers. Product stewardship has in fact become the strategy du jour for minimizing the impact of waste on the environment.

Product stewardship can be funded in several different ways. It can be financed through an end-user fee, where a surcharge added to the purchase price pays for collection, disposal and recycling of the product. This is common in states where consumers pay a bottle deposit on glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

Or, it can be a free “take-back” program, where a company accepts used products for recycling at no cost. For example, as of December 2008, Michigan requires that manufacturers establish free and convenient take-back programs for consumers to recycle old computers and TVs, as set forth by the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act. By April 2010, all Michigan retailers will be required to sell new computers and televisions made by manufacturers that have registered with the state in compliance with a free and convenient e-waste take-back program for consumers.

Though still an emerging waste management strategy, product stewardship has potential to be a viable policy option, encouraging the recycling and reuse of products and reducing the amount of waste that winds up in landfills. There are certainly challenges to its implementation on a grand scale; however the overall goal of minimizing waste from landfills is one that the industry should embrace.

As President and CEO of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), Carl Smith oversees the organization’s strategic partnerships and is responsible for the management of the national public education campaign and Call2Recycle program, the nation’s most comprehensive rechargeable battery and cell phone recycling solution. Working directly with its Board of Directors, Mr. Smith leads the overall direction of the company. He can be reached at [email protected].