Breakthrough Concept "Responsibility" -- Imagine That! -- Becomes Law in Maine

photo courtesy Computer Take Back Campaign
It's always puzzled me -– the far-Right notion that as individuals we should take responsibility for the impact of our actions but as businesses we should only be responsible for making money. Most people want consistency, and now Mainers are claiming it.

That's how I see the breakthrough Maine put into effect this year, thanks in large part to the tireless organizing and lobbying of the local Natural Resources Council of Maine. The Council engages a large network of citizens to protect Maine's lands and waters and the health of its people. They've helped Maine become the first state to enact “producer responsibility” for electronics.

Yes, a boring label, but, actually, a revolution. The idea is simple, that anyone putting a product into our world carries responsibility for its life-cycle, for covering the cost of its recycling.

With computers and televisions, this is no small matter.

In Maine alone an estimated 100,000 computers and televisions are thrown away each year; as many as 1,000,000 units could become electronic waste by 2010. And each one contains an array of toxic materials, including three to eight pounds of toxic lead, which if not properly handled will be released into the environment.

But thanks to recent legislation, and as of 2006, manufacturers in Maine must pick up the cost of recycling TVs and computer monitors.

“We were fortunate to be able to tap a reservoir of citizen interest and concern over the mounting pile of electronic junk and channel it toward achieving landmark legislation to solve the problem,” says Jon Hinck, Toxics Project Director at the Natural Resources Council. The Council first hosted an e-waste collection at the State Legislation Session in front of the State House, and contacted legislators to bring their electronic waste for recycling that day. As word spread of the initiative, so did citizen support, particularly from people in the recycling community. “We had great testimony in front of the Legislature,” says Hinck. “A seventy-year old city counselor from Belfast stole the show when she told the State's most powerful legislators that she wanted manufacturers to take their waste with them when they left with our money.”

Passed in 2004, the law requires that as of 2006 consumers take televisions and monitors to a transfer station, which then moves them to one of five state-approved recycling centers. The centers separate products by manufacturer, recycle them, and bill the manufacturer for the cost.

“It is ironic that the very electronic technology that provides so many educational opportunities for children with learning and other disabilities also contains a very potent neurotoxic mix that can be so harmful to the developing brains of our children,” said Sandy Cort of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine in a report by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Making the problem even bigger, the lifespan of a typical computer is short and getting shorter while sales continue to boom. As a recent United Nations Study noted, discarded computers are often shipped to poorly managed facilities in the Global South to be recycled. The results are toxic waste and health risks for workers. The study calls on computer manufacturers to make their products easier to upgrade and U.N. member states to encourage citizens to purchase used PCs and use them longer. (Up to 500 million computers will be obsolete in the U.S. alone by 2007.)

With so many threats posed by irresponsible management of electronic waste, it's little wonder Maine citizens are celebrating now. The day the new legislation went into effect, the Natural Resources Council hosted an e-waste drop-off event to commemorate the occasion. “There was a steady stream of cars that day,” says Hinck. “It's like getting plaque scraped off your teeth, getting that old TV out of your basement. People are proud.”

On this common sense “responsibility” path to creating a habitable world, the European Union countries are way ahead of the rest of the United States. In Chapter Five of Democracy's Edge, I noted that since 2005 the EU has required companies to take back used electronic products and recycle or reuse at least half of the products.

Yet here, in all but two states, the cost of managing discarded computers and electronics falls on taxpayers and local governments, or on the environment – people, animals and plants -- through unsafe disposal.  Logically, these measures shifting responsibility to manufacturers should provide incentives for companies to develop more durable, recyclable, less-toxic products.

While the Maine recycling law is the first to bill manufacturers directly for cost, Washington has just followed suit: On March 24th, 2006, Governor Christine O. Gregoire of Washington signed into law a bill mandating manufacturer responsibility for electronic waste. The Washington law – inspired by Maine's example – is even more stringent than Maine's: it requires manufacturers to take on collection costs for recycled items as well.

Two other states have tackled the problem of computer recycling. A California law requires customers to pay a disposal fee when they buy a TV or computer monitor, while Maryland imposes registration fees on computer makers and disburses the proceeds to municipalities for use in recycling old hardware.

Environmentalists hope other states will follow Maine's - and Washington's –example.

"The Maine legislation has been breakthrough legislation for the United States. It points us in a different direction," Sego Jackson, a county planner in Washington State, told the Portland Press Herald.

Other, more populous states are using it as a template for their own measures, Barbara Kyle told the Press Herald. Kyle is campaign coordinator for the Computer TakeBack Campaign, based in San Jose, Calif. About fifteen states are studying Maine's approach, and bills have been introduced in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin and New York City, Kyle said.

To make democracy work, each of us must take responsibility for the impact of our choices. Maine is showing the way.

How the Maine law works…

• Municipalities send waste computer and television monitors to consolidation centers. These centers are fully funded by manufacturers selling computer monitors and TVs in Maine.

• If they prefer, manufacturers can take back their own products directly.

• Manufacturers pay to safely ship and recycle the electronic waste according to the environmentally sound recycling guidelines adopted by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection. (Reports verify widespread mishandling of hazardous electronic waste, including units shipped to developing nations and broken down in ways harmful to workers, including children, and the environment.)

• Manufacturers cover costs apportioned according to the number of their units recovered in Maine, including a share of “orphan units,” those made by manufacturers now out of business.

• Maine's Department of Environmental Protection has adopted rules to control costs, and approves the consolidation centers and the collection and recycling plans.

• As of July 20, 2006 Maine bans the “landfilling” or incineration of computer and television monitors.

To learn more about computer recycling visit:

Computer Take Back Campaign

Natural Resources Council of Maine

Tom Bell, “Recycling Electronics Gets Easier Under New State Law,”
Portland Press Herald, January 18, 2006

Jerry Harkavy, “Maine joins EU and Japan in Detailing Who Pays to Recycle Computers, TVs,” KARE 11, January 18, 2006

Tom Hirsh, “Computers ‘Must Be Greener,'” March 8, 2004

Eric Williams, Computers and the Environment

“New Law Forces Manufacturers To Pick Up Recycling Costs,” Daily Southtown, January 19, 2006

Elizabeth Royte, Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash

For more stories of possibility, visit Frances Moore Lappé's Democracy's Edge -
Frances Moore Lappe is a contributing editor to YES! magazine.

Frances and Anna Lappé lead the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, a collaborative network for research and popular education to bring democracy to life. Together they founded the Small Planet Fund which solicits and channels resources to democratic social movements.
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