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Starting Jan. 1, N.J. electronics are to be recycled, not landfilled

Within weeks, discarded televisions and computer equipment in New Jersey will go from trash to treasure. A state law that bans landfilling the equipment, and encourages its recycling, goes into effect Jan. 1.

Cherry Hill recycling coordinator Chris Higgins looks over e-waste at the Department of Public Works building on Perina Boulevard. The town recycled 45 tons of e-waste last year. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
Cherry Hill recycling coordinator Chris Higgins looks over e-waste at the Department of Public Works building on Perina Boulevard. The town recycled 45 tons of e-waste last year. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)Read more

Within weeks, discarded televisions and computer equipment in New Jersey will go from trash to treasure.

A state law that bans landfilling the equipment, and encourages its recycling, goes into effect Jan. 1.

Similar to e-waste laws in nearly two dozen states - including Pennsylvania, where Gov. Rendell signed legislation last month - the Jersey law switches the recycling onus from consumers and taxpayers, making manufacturers ultimately responsible for the afterlife of the products they produce.

The law is being implemented at what amounts to prime time for electronics buying and disposal - the holidays, followed by the Super Bowl, which prompts many TV owners to upgrade.

Plus, in the fast-changing world of technology, equipment is often considered obsolete in just a few years, and people replace it.

Officials say many New Jersey towns and counties already have e-waste recycling programs, and residents can soon expect to see more options, including expanded recycling at stores and other programs manufacturers will put in place.

For consumers, "the whole idea is to make it convenient and free," said Guy Watson, chief of the Bureau of Recycling and Planning within the Department of Environmental Protection.

If residents put old TVs and computer equipment by the curb, waste haulers won't pick it up, Watson said.

New Jersey residents had been recycling 10 million to 12 million pounds of e-waste a year. Officials are hoping to see that rise to 50 million pounds in 2011.

Supporters of both state measures - Pennsylvania's will be implemented in two years - predict they also could boost jobs in the area.

A recycler is spending up to $5 million to transform a Northeast Philadelphia building into an e-recycling facility that could employ 50 people.

Both states' bills target televisions and computer equipment exclusively - the bulkiest and heaviest among myriad electronic devices.

In Cherry Hill, officials estimate that 75 percent of the 45 tons of e-waste the municipality recycled last year was televisions and computer equipment.

This week, the township is starting public-service ads about the new law.

Nationwide, e-waste has been growing two to three times faster than any other component of the waste stream.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 27 million televisions and 205 million computer products entered the waste stream in 2007, only 18 percent of which were recycled.

The problem with landfilling is that the equipment is bulky and heavy, representing a big expense for towns that pay tipping fees based on tonnage.

In addition, electronics typically have heavy metals including lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, and barium. The plastic housing contains flame retardants and other toxic chemicals.

Concern about electronics waste has grown in tandem with proliferation of the devices. The EPA now estimates the average American household has 24 electronic products.

About a decade ago, the EPA began meeting with manufacturers, retailers, environmental groups, and others to reach a national consensus on what to do.

"That ended in deadlock in 2004," said Rona Cohen, an analyst with the Council of State Governments, a nonprofit that works with state officials. Participants couldn't agree on how to finance a recycling system.

But e-waste remained a top concern for state officials, Cohen said.

At the time, only California and Maine had state laws.

This year, Pennsylvania became the 24th to act.

But manufacturers now say the patchwork of state regulations is unworkable and expensive.

Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs and sustainability at the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry group, said that juggling the inconsistencies cost an estimated $25 million a few years ago.

"There are 24 states and 24 different programs. No two are alike," he said. "These are deadweight costs, costs that don't go into recycling."

Alcorn said the industry was preparing voluntary national initiatives, but it wasn't yet time to reveal them.

How the state laws here will play out is unclear.

Basically, they each require manufacturers to register, pay a $5,000 fee to fund state oversight, and submit plans for how they will recover electronics - not necessarily theirs, but enough devices overall to meet a certain equivalency, based on the market share of their sales.

Manufacturers can comply with the law any number of ways, from launching their own collections to contracting with others to do so. In the end, they will have to document how much equipment they sold and collected.

Although the New Jersey law goes into effect Jan. 1, state rules have yet to be made final and not all manufacturers have submitted the required plans - or the $5,000 fee, Watson said.

If a company fails to comply, its goods cannot be sold. But it could take a CSI detective to track them all down.

"There are more than 2,700 known brands of computers alone," Watson said. "Many you could not find the manufacturer if you tried."

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for responsible recycling, said the laws here ranked in the middle of the pack, neither the weakest nor the strongest.

California's law - the first - makes consumers pay a fee when they buy electronics. It is so unpopular that no other state has followed.

Washington and Oregon, the most successful, make recycling the most convenient. They mandate collections in towns of over 10,000 people.

Kyle faulted the laws here for tepid prohibitions against exporting e-waste to developing countries, which have fewer restrictions about how they should be handled.

Some companies that say they're recyclers are really exporting most of what they collect, "where it's managed very badly," Kyle said. Studies have shown that people living near such processing facilities overseas have high levels of contamination from heavy metals, she said.

But one of the Pennsylvania bill's prime sponsors, Rep. Chris Ross (R., Chester County), said lawmakers had to be careful not to violate international trade laws.

He said he was pleased overall. "There will be more options for people," he said.

He said the bill was a compromise. "Everybody didn't get exactly what they wanted. But I think we found a balance."

Long before local laws were passed, a Minnesota electronics recycler, Materials Processing Corporation, began looking at the East Coast for an additional location.

It settled on Philadelphia, because it was centrally located and along the I-95 corridor. But now with the new laws, the company expects to get even more product.

MPC has rented an 111,000-square-foot facility in Northeast Philadelphia. Todd Schachtman, president of business development, said it could start accepting materials by the first of the year and be fully operational in months.

He said the company anticipated hiring 25 to 30 people to start, growing to 50 in a year.

"Producers are going to come to us and say: 'We need X amount of pounds for compliance. Can you do this for us?' Once we agree, we go out and establish a collection network, do the processing, and do the reporting to the state, to manufacturers, and to collectors," he said.

The company says it has a zero-landfilling policy. Devices are rehabbed for resale when possible, but otherwise are dismantled on site, and their materials recovered. Schachtman said the 5 percent of materials that can't be recycled are sent to incinerators.

Reusing materials means that the industry isn't depleting natural resources and raw materials, Schachtman said. "All this material is valuable in one way, shape, or form."