U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   07/26/2005
Statement of Scott Slesinger
Vice President for Government Affairs
Environmental Technology Council
An Oversight Hearing on Electronics Waste

My name is Scott Slesinger. I am Vice-President for Governmental Affairs of the Environmental Technology Council. I want to thank the Committee for requesting for the views of our Council on the issue of electronic or e-waste. Our council represents environmental service companies that recycle hazardous materials including electronic wastes and solvents. We also represent hazardous waste facilities permitted under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The volume of e-waste is growing, now comprising about 2 million tons a year. But this is a small percentage of the 236 million tons of waste that is disposed in our nation’s sanitary landfills. The reason that e-waste is a problem is the composition of the waste -- electronic wastes such as television screens, computer screens and cell phones contain toxic materials including mercury, cadmium and lead.

Challenge of E-Waste

Despite public statements to the contrary the amount of lead in a cathode ray tube (CRT) is not a “trace amount.” Similar to the lead shielding used to protect dental patients during x-rays, the amount of lead in computer is significant. A CRT can easily contain over 10 pounds of lead; large televisions have significantly more. The lead is a critical component that protects the users from radiation emitting from the tube. Other parts of the computer use lead in solder. Without these toxic metals, disposal in a sanitary landfill would be a safe and available option. However, sanitary landfills contain mostly organic food and other biodegradable acetic waste. These facilities are not operated to protect the environment from the leaching of the volume and types of lead that would be placed in such facilities. Newer, flat panel monitors do not use leaded glass, but require another toxic chemical, mercury, to operate efficiently.

If computers are hazardous toxic wastes under the law, why are they being disposed in non-hazardous waste landfills? When Congress passed the hazardous waste law, Congress exempted households and certain small quantity generators from the hazardous waste regulatory regime. The belief at the time was that the volume of toxic wastes from households and small generators would be minor and therefore would not be a threat to the environment.

Response to the E-Waste Problem

When communities became aware of the volumes of lead being placed in their sanitary landfills, they grew concerned. Some communities passed laws to encourage recycling and alternative waste management activities. Some banned such waste from landfills; others supported e-waste recycling.

About a quarter of the states passed laws treating CRTs as universal wastes. The universal waste rules are clear and simple standards for managing widely distributed hazardous wastes where the full hazardous waste requirements would be overly burdensome. The intent of the universal waste rules is to get hazardous waste out of the sanitary waste stream but without the rigorous requirements protections intended for industrial process wastes at factories and similar facilities. Essentially, the universal waste rules are a middle-ground between the household and conditional exempt generator rules, which exempts waste from controls and the full RCRA Subtitle C hazardous waste rules. EPA has established universal waste rules for items such as mercury thermostats, spent lead-acid batteries, unused pesticides, mercury thermostats and fluorescent lamps. An EPA advisory group that included state, federal, and environmental and industry representatives recommended to EPA that CRTs be added to the universal waste program to ensure responsible recycling. However, we have learned that instead of requiring universal waste protections, EPA plans to finalize regulations that essentially deregulate these wastes if sent to domestic recyclers. EPA’s proposed exemption from RCRA for CRT glass, if followed by the states, would represent a regrettable rollback in environmental protection.

The universal waste requirements that some states have in place for computers and CRTs provide for proper packaging, labeling, and tracking of shipments of CRTs sent and received to prevent illegal dumping and ensure legitimate recycling. The requirements also include notifying state regulatory officials of CRT waste management activities to allow necessary inspections and compliance. These requirements are appropriate and not unduly burdensome for companies engaged in the commercial collection, processing, and recycling of this type of hazardous waste. The practical and sensible approach is for EPA to apply universal waste standards to all CRT glass destined for recycling at the point of commercial collection. Other electronic waste, including computer hardware and cell phones should likewise be regulated under universal waste rules. The universal waste rules were promulgated for just this type of waste. Those who may argue that deregulation will lead to more recycling may be right. But such unregulated recycling will inevitably lead to improper recycling, taxpayer financed cleanups and public cynicism of recycling. These costs will dwarf the benefits of the possible chance of some increased recycling.

The risks are not imaginary. At the State Hazardous Waste Conference in 2002, many state regulators described the recycling industry as a “low-profit, risky business” with high turnover rates and inadequate insurance. The state regulators cited cases where low cost recyclers were merely sham operations that collected wastes fees, with no intention of doing any recycling. Many of these facilities have since gone out of business leaving contaminated sites for state agencies to clean up. One example occurred in Phelps County, Missouri. According to media reports, The Missouri Department of Revenue found 15,000 abandoned computer monitors. The DNR found someone was running a "computer recycling" business out of a rented building on the property. The owner of the business reportedly told customers he would take the monitors and dispose of them properly. Instead, state investigators say the man took the monitors, the cash and left. Hot sun melted the plastic coverings and rain can cause the lead to run-off into the soil and groundwater. It cost Missouri taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up the mess. By proposing to exclude CRT glass recycling from RCRA and the universal waste rule, EPA would be aiding and abetting this problem.

Despite EPA’s approach, many generators of computer wastes want recyclers to have some “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval. EPA responded by establishing fairly good guidelines in the document Plug-In to eCycling Guidelines for Materials Management. However, these Guidelines are only voluntary and their effectiveness as opposed to a promulgated universal waste standard is unconvincing.

Economics of Recycling

The key to e-waste recycling is economics. The first choice for the handling of e-waste, and the most economically viable alternative, is reuse of complete systems or individual components removed from the computer systems. Unfortunately, this alternative is not sufficient to accommodate the entire quantity of e-waste generated. Although donation programs are a means of providing technology to those that may not be able to afford it, there is a potential downside to this practice. If a company donates usable but outdated equipment to a school or program for low income individuals, the service life of that equipment is much shorter than that of new equipment. As such, the organization that could not afford to purchase new equipment is saddled with the cost of disposing the donated items when they cease operating. We know of one instance where a school received donated computer systems only to find that greater than 50% of the monitors received ceased operating within the first year.

For those items which cannot be reused, the other alternative is to recycle e-waste. Recycling will pay for itself if the value of the commodities that can be harvested from the computer is greater than the cost associated with the labor and facilities necessary to safely separate the materials into recoverable assets. If the economics don’t work, recycling can still occur if someone - - the consumer, government, or manufacturers pays for the recycling. Today, recyclers cost to recycle computers has dropped as commodity prices and useable parts prices have increased.

There are several variables that work against a vibrant domestic e-waste recycling industry. The first is the availability of “glass to glass” recycling. As domestic manufacturers have moved operations overseas or discontinued the manufacture of CRT glass, the demand for leaded glass within the US has dropped. When EPA proposed its CRT rule in June of 2002, the Agency determined that the value of leaded glass waste was $170 a ton. By January 2004, the value was minus $200. This economic reality created a situation where leaded glass was cheaper to dispose than to recycle. It also undermined EPA’s rationale in its proposed CRT rule that defined broken leaded glass as “commodity” because of its value. There is now a strong demand for CRT glass in Brazil and China for use in computers and televisions in those countries. However, the ultimate disposal of those CRTs after their second life is unlikely to be protective of the environment. A related factor is the price of metals on the commodities market. Most commodities do not go up with inflation as we see with the price of real estate or beer. Instead prices fluctuate wildly based on worldwide demand. When prices are high, inevitably there is more mining, recycling and use of alternatives followed by over-supply and price declines. The price of lead has fluctuated dramatically over the years. (Attachment C) Therefore any subsidy system should be flexible to accommodate the fluctuating prices of the metals and re-usable parts of e-waste.

Another factor is the cost of the recycling activity. It is difficult for e-waste recyclers located in the United States to compete with other low cost foreign recyclers. Because the recycling of e-waste is so labor intensive, the low wages and lack of benefits paid in some foreign countries provide these recyclers with disproportionately lower processing cost. Processing costs are not just limited to labor costs but also include the costs associated with environmental compliance and providing for worker safety. Many of these recyclers are located in countries that do not have the same level of standards that exist within the United States. The Basel Action Network report on China highlights the problems that exist. To address the labor costs, a few states have turned to prison labor; however this has been controversial due to questions concerning worker protection and other health and safety standards.

Many of our customers send computers to us for handling because our companies are heavily regulated. They know by our reputation and regular audits that we are in compliance with RCRA and state laws. For instance, we must track our waste, train our employees, prepare spill prevention plans and hold environmental insurance and closure insurance. Under the EPA proposed CRT rule, our competitors would not need to meet any of those requirements. Those companies would be subject to RCRA if they spilled hazardous waste on the ground but it is hard to imagine how that would be known. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for regulated entities to compete in such a system.

Our companies also have policies in place which mandate appropriate due diligence is exercised in selecting proper facilities for the recycling or disposal of materials derived from e-waste, regardless of whether the company is located domestically or abroad. These customers want to be assured that the wastes will actually be recycled properly and that the wastes from the recycling process, if any, are handled safely and consistent with the law.

Today, with commodities prices high, there have been many new businesses trying to make profits out of e-waste. When the price of the valuable components inevitably turns, these unregulated recyclers may fail and leave the taxpayer to clean up the toxic remains. We believe that whatever legal regime is established for recycling the rules should require financial assurance for closure, environmental liability insurance, employee training and some minimal waste tracking so consumers can be assured their discarded computers are managed properly.

The Wyden-Talent bill, which we endorse, includes standards for e-waste recyclers. With protections and economic incentives, we believe e-waste recycling can expand and be a significant part of the manufacturing life cycle. Mr. Chairman, the goal should not simply be to increase recycling. The goal should be responsible recycling that conserves sources, saves energy and enhances the environment.

Thank you and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.