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Analysis: Electronics Recycling Effort Shrinking In PA, The Law Needs To Be Fixed

Pennsylvania’s electronics recycling law passed with fanfare in 2010 has so far failed to provide the robust electronics recycling opportunities intended by its supporters. 

Pennsylvania’s most populous counties: Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery have, in fact, discontinued electronics recycling, others have operated recycling programs without support from the recycling law because the system is broken.

DEP notified the hardware manufacturers who fund the program in June that 18 counties had no electronics recycling opportunities: Armstrong, Bucks, Bradford, Cameron, Carbon, Chester, Clinton, Cumberland, Delaware, Huntingdon, Montgomery, Montour, Perry, Philadelphia, Pike, Sullivan, Susquehanna, and Wyoming.

It’s expected to be worse for the coming year.

Pennsylvania now has about 560 electronics recycling locations, down from close to 1,000 during the first years of the program.

The cause of the failure is simple: makers of desktop computers, laptop computers, computer monitors, computer peripherals and televisions sold to consumers in Pennsylvania are not required by law to pay the true cost of recycling these electronic devices, in particular old-style CRT televisions with leaded glass screens.

Hardware manufacturers make contracts with communities and recyclers to recycle their share of electronics up to an amount set each year based on the weight of the new products they sell the previous year.  (Click Here for a DEP fact sheet on how the process works.)

Hardware makers are not only not required by law to pay the actual cost of recycling, they also do not have to pay to recycle all the electronics collected by local programs they help fund, just their share by weight.

As a result, some communities have been stuck with electronics they collected because manufacturers did not pay for more than their share.  In other cases, they stop accepting some electronic devices because they are simply too costly to recycle.

The leaded glass in CRT televisions in particular has been a problem, since they are heavy and difficult and expensive to recycle and must be shipped out of Pennsylvania for safe processing.

Because manufacturers do not pay for the actual cost of recycling, this has lead to many CRTs collected as a result of the recycling law to be simply stored in warehouses and truck trailers all over the state, almost in every county. 

In one case, there is a warehouse with an estimated 8 million pounds of leaded glass waiting to be recycled, but, in reality, it is just being stored.

By law, leaded glass from CRTs being warehoused for a period of time without being recycled is considered a hazardous waste and must be cleaned up accordingly.

Ultimately, the hardware manufacturers that fund the program are responsible, under the law, for seeing that the materials they pay to have collected are actually recycled and can be held liable for cleanup if the materials are simply warehoused.

To date, DEP has not taken any enforcement action against hardware manufacturers related to the warehousing of leaded glass CRTs. 

In a provision unique in state environmental law, the electronics recycling law requires DEP to seek authorization from the Office of Attorney General to undertake enforcement actions.  DEP is now seeking that authorization, but has so far it has not been received.

Another unintended consequence of the law not requiring hardware makers to pay the true cost of recycling, is it has forced some recyclers to drop out of the hardware maker-supported recycling program altogether and return to a fee-for-service model that charges consumers for recycling.

This is obviously not what the law had in mind, but it has been the only way to make electronics recycling available in some areas, in particular in Western Pennsylvania.

In other words, to provide for electronics recycling, communities and recyclers in some areas have had to avoid the Pennsylvania electronics recycling program entirely.

The dwindling number of electronics recycling opportunities is also leading to more frequent reports of roadside dumping of electronics, and CRT televisions in particular, because the electronics recycling law also bans the disposal of electronics in landfills, according to Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful.

Other states, like Connecticut, set a minimum recycling price hardware makers must pay that is much closer to the actual cost of recycling making the program viable.

It would take a major change in Pennsylvania’s electronics recycling law to really fix the many problems with the program.

These problems are not new, but they have been mostly inside baseball, known only to those folks directly involved. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, however, did report on some of these problems in May and CBS Pittsburgh TV just did a story on the challenge of recycling old TVs on August 19.

On August 31 the reports are due to DEP from hardware makers on the number of pounds they are prepared to pay to have recycled in the coming year based on last year’s sales of new products. 

The overall weight they report will continue to drop because no one sells heavy CRTs anymore and with it hardware makers will pay for even fewer pounds of Pennsylvania’s electronics to be recycled.

As the official state electronics recycling program continues to shrink, will we find even more CRT televisions and other electronic waste dumped by the side of the road or stored warehouses and truck trailers around the state?

The answer is yes, unless we take action to fix Pennsylvania’s electronics recycling law.

For more information on the existing electronics recycling program, visit DEP’s Electronic Recycling Management Program webpage.

Check with your County Recycling Coordinators for legitimate electronics recycling opportunities in your area.

Also outside of the state electronics recycling program, but an effective option for some devices, are computer and other device recycling services, often free, from retailers like Best Buy and Staples.

NewsClip: Recycling Old TVs A Real Challenge In PA


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