The list of electronics for which Californians must pay an upfront recycling fee could get much longer.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) formally adopted 11 recommendations in May as part of its Future of Electronic Waste Management in California project, which includes a suggestion to add most devices that require batteries or a power cord to the list of items covered under California's Electronic Waste Recycling Act, according to a CalRecycle news release.
Under the act, the Covered Electronic Waste payment program requires that customers pay a fee for certain electronic devices at the time of purchase. According to CalRecycle, that fee ranges from $5 to $7, depending on the size of the device. Retailers then remit most of that money to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA) to cover the cost of collecting and recycling these devices when the time comes.
Currently, the program's list of devices includes certain kinds of televisions, monitors, laptops, tablets and portable DVD players that have screens larger than 4 inches diagonally, according to CalRecycle. CalRecycle said it set forth these new recommendations as an effort to keep up with rapidly evolving technology.
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California had one of the first e-waste programs in the nation, said Lance Klug, CalRecycle spokesperson. But the list of technology included in the payment program is limited, and the state has fallen behind others in the U.S., as well as other countries.
Just because a device is not on the payment program list doesn't mean you can just throw it in the trash. It still legally has to be properly managed, and what Klug said is happening is that electronics are getting smaller, are mostly plastic and harder to dismantle.
"Historically, collectors ... took all e-waste because the value they received from the Covered Electronic Devices covered the cost of managing noncovered items," said Klug "Since CEW payments are weight-based, recyclers are receiving less support for managing more complex devices (with) less value."
Collectors and recyclers can be the same entity, said Klug, but recycling payments are made to recyclers, who then pay collectors. Many recyclers have begun turning away noncovered devices or charging fees to take lower scrap value items like printers, small household appliances, stereos and DVD players.
Many people then take these items to local government Household Hazardous Waste programs, Klug said, adding that data collected from these programs suggest more than 53 million pounds of e-waste was collected through the HHW programs in 2017 alone.
"While the average net costs for managing Covered Electronic Waste are covered," said Klug, "most local governments are still bearing significant costs for managing the myriad electronic devices that are not included in the CEW payment program."
A CalRecycle 2014 waste characterization study estimated that 273,878 tons of electronic waste end up in landfills annually, and Klug said about three-quarters of that is made up of electronic devices not covered by the payment program.
According to CalRecycle, the payment program's list of covered devices includes only a fraction of the estimated 120 million electronic devices purchased in California each year, which often contain hazardous materials such as lead and mercury.
Adding more electronic devices to the payment plan would act as an incentive for recyclers to take these devices, Klug said, making it less likely that people will just throw them away.
But, along with many of the other recommendations that were approved, CalRecycle does not have the existing authority to add electronic devices to California's e-waste payment plan. That would have to be done through legislation.
The 11 recommendations came as a result of two years of workshops, surveys and discussions with tech leaders and stakeholders, CalRecycle said.
"CalRecycle will continue to engage stakeholders on these recommendations in the weeks and months ahead to keep this important dialogue going," said Klug. "The Future's project was created to raise awareness about this important issue and present some potent policy solutions for policy makers to consider."
Other CalRecycle recommendations to redesign California’s e-waste management efforts include:
▪ Incentivizing greater repair and reuse of electronic devices
▪ Increasing manufacturer responsibilities, including labeling and greater attention to durability/recyclability
▪ Exploring a transition from the current consumer fee to a manufacturer-funded program to cover the costs of proper end-of-life product management
▪ Adjusting recycling and recovery payments on a yearly basis to authorized CEW collectors and recyclers
▪ Encouraging industry take-back programs for emerging technologies like electric car batteries and solar panels
A full list of recommendations and summary of the project can be found here.
"California's CEW program created the infrastructure needed to safely manage the state's e-waste while providing convenience for consumers and cost relief for local governments, but technology is changing and our program must change, too," CalRecycle Director Scott Smithline said in the CalRecycle news release. "As electronics get more complex, California must innovate e-waste management to maximize resource conservation and minimize public and environmental health."