Executive Summary

Electronic waste, otherwise known as E-Waste, is a category of surplus electronic goods that are no longer wanted or useful, often considered to be “end-of-life” electronics (Bouvier 2011). Many hazardous chemicals such as beryllium, cadmium or lead are found in E-Waste and cause various types of cancers as well as kidney, liver, and brain damage in humans, along with other adverse ecological impacts (Cobbing 2008). In fact, E-Waste is the most rapidly growing form of waste in the Massachusetts – less than 20% of the total amount of electronic waste generated was recycled in 2008 (Greenpeace, 2008).

E-Waste may take one of several different fates when thrown away. When disposed of in the trash with other forms of garbage, E-Waste may be incinerated, thrown in a landfill or exported to third world countries. Once abroad, E-Waste is often improperly recycled by untrained workers, who do not have the knowledge or resources to dispose of E-Waste safely (Puckett, 2005). Furthermore, large amounts of the exported E-Waste is stockpiled, with no efforts to remove salvageable parts or find other useful applications for the material (Schmidt 2002). Improper recycling or disposal creates risks to human health and the environment. Despite all these concerns, recycling can be a safe and effective way of disposing of E-Waste.

Collection, the first step to recycling, is defined as the act of gathering, sorting, and packaging E-Waste for transportation and proper disposal. There are six types of collection most commonly used in the United States and internationally, including (1) curbside pick-up by collection companies with trucks, (2) donation to charitable organization such as the Salvation Army, (3) collection events hosted by recyclers, governments or private companies, (4) drop off locations at companies such as Best Buy or local municipal recycling facilities, (5) mail-in services through companies such as Apple Inc., or (6) simple disposal in the common waste stream by throwing E-Waste in the garbage. Cost and convenience are basic factors in any person’s willingness to participate in a recycling program. In states that do not have a well-advertised, convenient E-Waste recycling program, consumers with the mind to recycle must spend time and money to locate, pay for, and travel to electronic waste collectors before passing their E-Waste off to be recycled.

Processing is the disassembly of E-Waste into its system components. Sometimes, a processor merely takes these electronic components and either resells them as refurbished parts to consumers or ships them overseas to be reused. Ideally, the processor is responsible for separation of E-Waste into hazardous components, reusable parts and basic raw materials. First the product is stripped of dangerous parts, such as Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs), which may contain up to 8 pounds of lead each (Urbina, 2013). After stripped of dangerous parts, E-Waste goes through a huge shredder. The goal of the shredder is to reduce the size of E-Waste into “uniform rough pieces” (Kirkke, 2008). These harvested materials, especially steel, glass, copper and aluminum, are resold to manufacturers to generate income for E-Waste recyclers (Kirkke, 2008). Safe recycling is considered ‘high-tech’ recycling in comparison to recycling through incineration (Robinson 2009). However, safe recycling almost always comes at a cost to the consumer.

In February, 2002, the 27 member countries of the European Union ratified a directive on Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment, also known as WEEE (Ongondo, 2011). The directive requires the use of safe recycling methods. To deal with the associated cost of safe recycling, EU legislators chose to use an environmental policy known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The EPR model makes producers, those that create electronic products for the market, take responsibility for removing those products from the market. To do so, producers are held financially responsible for the costs of collection, transportation, and processing (Bohr, 2007). With the EPR model, producers build products that are easier to recycle and contain less hazardous chemicals.

In juxtaposition to the EPR model in the EU, the United States federal government has not passed any legislation on E-Waste. As a result, it has fallen to the states to legislate an E-Waste recycling program. The EPR model has been instituted to varying degrees in Washington, Maine and New York, among many other states. Currently in Massachusetts, there is no legislation mandating that E-Waste be recycled or that recycling be conducted in a safe manner (MassDEP, WasteBans). Massachusetts is on the verge of instituting a version of the EPR model that has the possibility to be the most innovative in the United States.

There are currently three bills in the State Legislature aimed at establishing an E-Waste recycling program in Massachusetts. Senator Jamie Eldridge sponsored S357, An Act to require producer responsibility for collection, reuse and recycling of discarded electronic products. Senate bill 357 mandates an EPR model that regulates and audits each of the members in the safe recycling process. Representative Smizik sponsored H803, which has the same title and is essentially the same piece of legislation as S357. Senator Marc Pacheco sponsored S386, An act relative to information technology producer responsibility, which aims to mandate an EPR-based approach to recycling E-Waste in Massachusetts. However, S386 has several definitions that could be more expansive and several provisions that could have stronger wording in order to increase the coverage of a Massachusetts E-Waste recycling program.

The goal of our project was to facilitate the passage of comprehensive E-Waste recycling legislation. First, we characterized E-Waste recycling policy at the international, national, and state levels. Additionally, we compared the purposes and attributes of previous and pending E-Waste bills in Massachusetts. Second, the team increased public awareness by educating a variety of Massachusetts residents on the issues of E-Waste and E-Waste recycling. We also surveyed these Massachusetts residents to gather data on their opinions on E-Waste recycling.

(1)   Education

To raise awareness about the issue of E-Waste in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the team utilized Google Sites to create a website that became a repository of information for recycling and legislation. The website provides the residents of Massachusetts with educational resources on societal impacts, methods of recycling, the locations of certified recyclers and updates on legislation. Our website was able to attract over 400 visitors from across the world within a one-month time frame. We contacted an environmental advocacy group called Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG) to gain access to Massachusetts colleges with high percentages of in-state students. In Worcester, our team attended the Worcester EcoTarium’s Earth Day celebration to promote our project and survey visitors at the EcoTarium. The team surveyed and assisted WPI’s Student Green Team with a free E-Waste collection drive on campus, where we collected over 7287 pounds of E-Waste.

To ensure introducing E-Waste legislation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the correct step, the team conducted a survey involving a random sample of Massachusetts residents. In total we surveyed over 400 residents. Our data analysis showed that 87% of the surveyed Massachusetts residents supported legislation that makes manufacturers, otherwise known as producers, financially responsible for the safe recycling of E-Waste. Also, our analysis indicated that the majority of residents do not wish to spend more than $5 per item or travel more than 5 miles to safely recycle their E-Waste. Overall the opinions of Massachusetts residents reinforced our main claim; Massachusetts needs to pass legislation for an EPR based E-Waste recycling program.

(2)   Policy

To gather more insight into E-Waste legislation, the team took the time to conduct case studies on various forms of E-Waste policy, including the Europe Union, Washington State, California, Maine and New York. Massachusetts is among the remaining half of states without any form of E-Waste legislation, although legislation has been attempted since 2002. In 2013, six different bills were filed in the session. On March 26th, 2013, the team attended a public hearing and testified in front of the Joint Committee on Environmental, Natural Resources and Agriculture on issues regarding E-Waste.

To prepare for our testimony, we developed a matrix of the three strongest bills, H803, S357 and S386, that had the best chance of being reported out of committee. Furthermore, our team attended the Massachusetts Toxic Waste Seminar hosted by environmental advocates to gain more insight on the E-Waste issue. At the seminar we learned the different viewpoints of legislators, state agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and various environmental advocacy groups. Our research and discussions with relevant stakeholders helped us create a persuasive presentation at the March 21st, 2013 public hearing, by identifying the key attributes needed in progressive E-Waste legislation. Senate bill 357 was most closely aligned with the key attributes we recommended. Consequently, among other attributes, we advocated for, S357, which subsequently was sent out of the Joint Committee on Environmental, Natural Resources and Agriculture and moved on to the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Our findings demonstrate that there is substantial support for E-Waste legislation. Our evaluation of legislation revealed several key provisions to ensure a successful E-Waste recycling program. Our team identified several provisions that should be considered for any piece of recycling legislation in Massachusetts. First, include provisions for infrastructure, or specifically the registration of collectors, processors, and producers within the state in order to track the parties involved and identify violations. Second, include provisions for education, or specifically a variety of ways for the public to learn of the program, especially in the early stages, which requires a combined effort from retailers, processors, producers and government. Third, include provisions for enforcement, or specifically a system to catch fraudulent activity and the legal weight for the Department of Environmental Protection to take action against infractions. Fourth, include a provision for joint and several liability, in other words, responsibility for all participants in the recycling system post-consumer, including collectors, processors, and producers in the event that one member violates regulations or recycles in an unsafe manner. This would also cover products that have multiple producers manufacturing parts. Finally, include a provision for a solid waste ban on E-Waste, or a disposal ban that removes E-Waste from the normal waste stream by making it illegal to throw E-Waste in the trash.

Therefore, our team has the following recommendation for future endeavors with E-Waste recycling legislation:

  1. The team recommends others to use our project as a model to help raise awareness of E-Waste recycling and legislation.
  2.  The team advises others to use our research as a gateway to understanding the importance and the effectiveness of comparative analysis.
  3.  Lastly, we recommend that independent researchers conduct future studies on the effectiveness of E-Waste recycling should a bill be passed.