Computer equipment and television manufacturers would no longer have to help with the cost of recycling their products sold in North Carolina under a bill that has cleared the state Senate.
It puts some recycling efforts at risk of closing.
Electronics manufacturers would be off the hook for fees that currently help pay for the local recycling programs, a change that would shift the cost of the programs, which exist statewide, to cities and counties. It is expected that many local governments would divert money from other uses – or add fees to the public – to keep the programs going.
It would still be illegal to dump electronics in landfills in North Carolina. Environmentalists and officials in the recycling industry fear the change would trigger more illegal disposals.
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“We are very concerned about this,” said Diane Davis, executive director of the Carolina Recycling Association. “The impact on local government could be just unreal.”
Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican from Greensboro who guided through the Senate a complex deregulation bill that includes the recycling provision, says companies pass fees on to consumers. She said the fees deter computer companies from doing business in the state, especially startups that have a hard time paying the fees.
“We want all businesses to send their products here to be sold,” Wade said. “We’re trying to be more business-friendly, especially for companies that are already in North Carolina.”
Wade said manufacturers wanted the legislature to address the fees, but she didn’t know specifically which company or companies sought the change.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Rocky Mount, sought during debate in the Senate to retain the fees on manufacturers through proposed amendments to the bill. She was unsuccessful.
The idea now heads to the House.
Caught off guard
House Bill 765 appeared unexpectedly in the Senate last week and was approved in a matter of days. It overwrites a minor, unrelated bill that had cleared the House.
The state’s recyclers were caught off guard, and in interviews, some said they are planning to make their case to members of the House.
The electronics recycling program has been in place for the past five years, established by the General Assembly in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2010. That vote included senators who have now voted for the larger bill with the repeal provision.
The 2010 law also banned discarding televisions and computers in landfills, and that ban would remain in place under the bill. The law was passed to deal with what legislators said was a growing and increasingly complex supply of electronics that consumers are throwing away.
About 30 million pounds of that merchandise was recycled in North Carolina last year, which is three times the amount when the program started. Over the past five years, a recycling system for those products has been built to provide free drop-off in all 100 counties through county and municipal programs, manufacturer locations and retail sites, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which administers the program.
Fees collected in the last fiscal year amounted to nearly $1 million.
Older televisions make up about 60 percent of the computers and TVs recycled. TV manufacturers pay a $2,500 annual fee. They are also required to recycle a specific number of televisions based on their national market share.
Computer makers pay $10,000 to $15,000 initially and then annual fees of $2,500 to $15,000. The amount they pay depends on how aggressively they encourage consumers to use free and convenient recycling. Companies that agree to a most intense plan – which includes accepting devices in at least 50 counties – pay less in fees.
The bill would eliminate the requirement for those plans.
Manufacturers’ fees help local governments run their programs, and the electronics companies are also required to contract with recyclers. The agency reports there are seven major electronics recyclers in North Carolina and 50 or more smaller companies. In all, they employ at least 400 people and have an investment of more than $30 million, DENR reports.
Davis, from the recycling association, says the industry is continuing to grow, and has become more complex.
“The whole picture of what recycling is doing for the economy is something we cannot seem to get some people to understand,” Davis said. “They still think recycling is just an environmental stewardship activity.”
It is that, she said, but it is also a significant employer in an industry that has made big strides in changing the throw-away culture of the country, particularly in the Southeast.
“I just hate to see us take steps backward,” she said. “Let’s get together and figure out what’s wrong. If someone is so unhappy about it, let’s sit down and figure out how to make it work.”
Cost to local governments
DENR, which raised concerns about other parts of the bill and persuaded lawmakers to make changes, is not taking a position on the electronics recycling program.
Some local officials, such as John Roberson, Wake County’s director of solid waste management, say they are bracing for a financial hit.
“If it passes, it’s likely to have a significant financial impact on us on the order of greater than $100,000 this coming year,” Roberson said.
He said the system in place now allows recyclers to pass savings from handling a large volume of work along to cities and counties. If the bill passes and goes into effect immediately, it could disrupt contracts like that all over the state.
Molly Diggins, North Carolina director of the Sierra Club, said eliminating the fees would make manufacturers no longer responsible for recycling their discarded equipment.
“The bill seems intended to completely dismantle an established and successful statewide electronics recycling program,” Diggins said.
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