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Moving Forward on E-Waste Management | Commentary

Three years ago, a dozen leading consumer electronics companies collaborated to create the “Billion Pound Challenge.” The goal: recycle one billion pounds of electronic devices annually, enough to fill an entire NFL stadium. As of last April, the industry was more than halfway to its original goal, with 585 million pounds responsibly recycled — up from 300 million pounds in 2010. But now a patchwork of state rules mandating recycling is inadvertently complicating this effort to reach our billion-pound stretch goal.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs heard testimony on the important but often overlooked issue of what to do with all the electronics devices Americans are discarding. These devices are an integral part of our daily lives and constantly improving, becoming smaller and lighter, and shrinking their environmental footprint.

Recycling older electronics is crucial because many of these devices contain valuable materials and components like metals, plastics and glass that can be reused in new devices and other commodities markets. Yet rules for recycling electronics vary widely from state to state, making compliance complicated, and shifting resources away from collection and recycling to a labyrinth of forms, fees and reports to file. It’s critical for the environment, economic growth and future innovation that we get e-cycling right.

The electronics industry and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) are leading the way in educating consumers and creating programs that make e-cycling as easy as purchasing. In 2012, 63 percent of consumers knew how and where to recycle their used electronics, up from 58 percent in 2010. And to make the process even easier, manufacturers and retailers offer more than 8,000 collection locations around the U.S., which can be found by zip code at

Unfortunately, despite the industry’s continued advances in electronics recycling, government rules at the state level have created a maze of laws that make it difficult to implement a recycling system across statelines. We need a national framework for recycling old devices, legislation that allows the industry to take the lead in developing innovative solutions for electronics recycling in partnership with states that are focused on this issue. Maximizing responsible electronics recycling is best done when consumer electronics companies incorporate e-cycling into their company business models — not through dozens of complicated and bureaucratic state rules. Thankfully, our nation’s lawmakers recognize this need and are beginning to explore this issue through committee hearings and less formal conversations with experts.

It’s critical for our environment, economic growth and future innovation that we get e-cycling right. But government must let the industry — the primary financiers of consumer recycling — take the lead in designing, implementing and managing a cross-state system for recycling used and outdated consumer electronics.

Working together, we can develop a successful framework to promote ongoing recycling efforts throughout the U.S. Now is the time to forge a path forward on consumer electronic recycling and reach a nationwide consensus that is an industry-driven, government-supported and consumer-friendly effort.

Walter Alcorn is the staff vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability for the Consumer Electronics Association.

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