Five state legislatures took steps this year to curb the threat of toxic waste created by the proliferation of discarded computer gear and other digital junk, making 2007 a banner year for passage of electronic recycling laws.
Leading the pack, Minnesota enacted the nation's strongest "e-cycling" law. It requires manufacturers of electronic goods to recycle 60 percent of the volume of their products sold in the state. Less stringent recycling laws were signed into law in Connecticut, Oregon and Texas this year, and North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) also is expected to approve an e-waste law passed by his state's Legislature.
Those five states join California, Maine, Maryland and Washington, which pioneered electronic recycling programs from 2003 to 2006.
State legislatures are being pressed to act by local governments worried about the hazards of lead, mercury and fire-retardant plastics in electronic devices and the cost of cleaning up those chemicals in landfills, said Barbara Kyle, a spokeswoman for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition .
At the same time, states recognize that federal legislation requiring electronic recycling — preferred by the electronics industry — seems highly unlikely in the short-term, said Kyle, whose group is lobbying for stronger recycling measures.
While the nine states with mandatory electronics recycling have taken different approaches, manufacturers are bearing the bulk of responsibility and the initial costs of recycling in eight of them. California, the first state to pass an electronics recycling law, is the exception, charging consumers $6 to $10 at the point of sale to dispose of digital waste.
Minnesota's law, which took effect in July, goes furthest by requiring manufacturers to pay for the recycling based on their annual sales and to recover 60 percent of the weight of products sold in the state in the first year and 80 percent of that volume in the second year.
Consumer Electronics Association Director Parker Brugge predicted the Minnesota law would be expensive and difficult for manufacturers to meet. Television manufacturers are especially worried about an unexpected cost for recycling products that they made years ago, he said.
Computer producers prefer the new Texas law and the North Carolina bill, which allow manufacturers freedom to tailor their own recycling programs.
Those programs could include an option that the Dell Corp. already provides to its customers worldwide — free shipping to return a computer to the company. In fact, Dell was a strong supporter of the Texas law, because it allows companies the most options to meet their customers' needs, said Dell spokesman Sean Donahue.
In Oregon, electronics manufacturers can set up their own recycling program or pay into a state-run effort, while in Maine, producers can opt out of a statewide program if their products make up more than 5 percent of the recycled electronics.
Brugge said members of Congress are discussing a framework for possible legislation, and companies fear the costs and administrative burdens of a patchwork of state laws. But until there is a federal bill, states are going to continue to take their own steps, he said.
"A lot of states have waited, hoping Congress would take it up. ... They're tired of waiting," he said.