Senators Tom Carper, Shelley Moore Capito, and John Boozman reintroduced The Recycling and Composting Accountability Act after it failed to make it past the House in 2022. The goals of this bill are to make it easier for people to recycle electronics and other harder-to-recycle products. As of February 2024, S.1194 hasn’t progressed.

E-waste is an ongoing concern, and election years both add to the problems and offer hope for better solutions. What are the effects of democracy on e-waste?

Understanding the Complexity of E-Waste

E-waste includes all of the electric devices people purchase and use from day to day. It’s the laptop or computer you work on. It’s the cellphone you use, the e-reader you’re reading books on, and the smart speaker that tells you the news and weather. Your gaming system, TV, stereo system, cordless power tools, rechargeable flashlight, air purifier, robotic vacuum, and cordless vacuum are other examples of e-waste. 

There’s much more to it. If you have a hybrid or EV car, the batteries in it are not disposable. You must recycle them. You could even have children’s toys that qualify as e-waste. Your toddler’s book makes sounds using push buttons that activate the chip within the book. That’s also a form of e-waste. The birthday card that plays a song when you open it also has a battery and is e-waste. 

All of this waste contains metal, glass, and plastic that must be recycled. If tossed in a landfill, you have materials like lead, mercury, and cadmium leaching into the ground. While today’s landfills are lined, there are no guarantees how long the lining will last. It might be fine for our lifetime, but 100 to 200 years from now, our actions could become a major headache for our distant ancestors.

You Can’t Pass the Problem On

What do you know about PCBs? Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are carcinogens that were banned in 1976 by the Toxic Substances Control Act. They’d been used between 1930 and 1977 in items like caulking, paint, electrical cables, fluorescent light ballasts, transformers, flame retardants, pesticides, X-rays, etc. These PCBs got into water and soil and are causing major problems with people’s health decades later. 

Have you heard of the Love Canal in New York? PCBs are part of the toxic waste that led to that area becoming an EPA Superfund site. In North Carolina, over 30,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil was sprayed along around 240 miles, leading to the arrest of several men tied to Ward PCB Transformer Company.

Sometimes, the PCBs are unknowingly entering water and contaminating fish. Washington found high levels of PCBs in the Puget Sound, Green Lake, Lake Washington, and six rivers. The PCBs were coming from paint, sealants, ink, and hydraulic fluid. Everyone needs to consider how our actions can impact people 50+ years from now.

How Do Election Years Impact It?

Election years increase e-waste as you have campaign teams printing out flyers for mailing and handing out. You have teams setting up offices to make calls to voters. Every candidate is adding to the amount of e-waste by needing TVs, monitors, computers, cellphones, printers, tablets, etc. 

When election day ends, some candidates may move on and never run away. All of those electronics enter the e-waste stream. It must have its data wiped so that it can be refurbished and sold to someone else. As candidates collect voter information, security measures that protect this PII are essential.

Candidates who will run in the future may put the items into storage. Again, it’s better to have data wiped to avoid theft of personal information from voters and donors. 

E-waste policies are also a great platform to draw voters. Data For Progress found that 78% of all voters reported being “very” or “somewhat” concerned about plastic pollution. Only 5% of voters were not at all concerned. Almost 80% of voters would support politicians passing laws to force producers and manufacturers to establish and pay for plastic recycling. Imagine how many of those also support stricter e-waste laws.

That’s just politicians. You also have voters who may start buying updated electronics before the new administration moves in, as there’s always a fear of how much prices will increase. The election lines up with the holidays too, so you’ll have people purchasing electronics to give as gifts, which is going to cause e-waste to spike as the new replaces the old.

How Does Your State Address E-Waste?

Only some states have a plan in place for e-waste, which prompts people to throw out their electronic waste. It’s harmful to the environment and to workers at landfills and hauling trash from homes to facilities. When states have laws in place, it’s usually down to one of three things.

  • Advanced Recycling Fee (ARF): Pay a fee at the time of purchase which covers future recycling.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): Manufacturers and producers cover the cost of recycling through take-back systems that they fund.
  • Pre-Disposal Waste Fee (PDF): Consumers pay a fee when they go to recycle an item.

California is currently the only state using ARF to cover the cost of e-waste recycling. Another 24 states have passed e-waste laws but focus on EPR programs. In addition, some states also charge consumers a fee to recycle certain electronics. 

Many facilities set limits on how many electronics you can drop off for recycling. For example, Vermont limits people to no more than one cubic yard of computers, monitors, UPS battery backups, speakers, etc. If a person has more than that, they must schedule an appointment. Businesses may only recycle seven electronics at a time without paying fees. 

Here’s an area of e-waste that is becoming a prevalent concern. Solar panels that were installed in the early-2000s are nearing the end of their life. Washington passed the first laws regarding solar panel recycling in 2017, and New York formed an EPR law in 2021, but many states are still working on passing laws.

Because of this, many states don’t have plans in place. California passed a law that went into effect on January 1, 2021, allowing decommissioned solar panels to be regulated like universal waste rather than hazardous waste. The goal is to make it easier and more cost-effective to properly recycle solar panels. 

Vermont’s largest recycling and waste company states they should be thrown into the trash if they are less than 80% metal or recycled as scrap metal if they’re over 80% metal. It makes it very hard for people to have a clue on how to recycle them. A Solar Panel Recycling Plan Act was introduced in 2023, but it has not moved since its introduction.

Across the U.S., there are stories similar to this. Consumers and businesses are relying more and more on electronic devices, solar, heat pumps, and modern technology for day-to-day life. However, advancing technology is often embraced before people stop to think about what happens when the device, appliance, or technology is no longer needed or working. 

Waiting until the last moment hasn’t worked. When it’s time to elect new local, state, and federal leaders, make sure your vote aligns with the things that matter the most. If you’re tired of not understanding how to recycle e-waste or having a program available for e-waste recycling, use your vote to put leaders into office who are ready to find solutions that work for everyone, not just a select few.