In 2010, Wisconsin established legislation that banned electronics waste from the landfills. Over those ten years, Wisconsinites have recycled more than 325 million pounds of TVs, laptops, cellphones and more. As one of only 25 states with some sort of an electronics recycling law, Wisconsin is widely considered to have one of the most successful programs in the country. But it isn’t without its challenges.
On this episode, we speak with Sarah Murray, Wisconsin DNR’s E-cycle Coordinator, and Sen. Mark Miller of Monona, the legislation’s author and advocate, to learn more about what E-cycling is, how the last ten years have gone, and how Wisconsinites can help it be even more successful going forward.
Read more about E-cycling in Wisconsin in the Fall 2020 issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/wnrmag/2020/Fall
[00:00:00] Welcome to Wisconsin DNR's Wild Wisconsin: Off The Record Podcast – information straight from the source.
Katie Grant: [00:00:12] Welcome back to another episode of Wild Wisconsin: Off The Record. I'm your host, DNR's digital communication section chief Katie Grant. 2020 has been a year for a lot of anniversaries in the world of natural resources. Earth Day celebrated its 50th year along with the EPA, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
It was also the 30th anniversary of Wisconsin's recycling laws and the 10th anniversary of our electronics waste legislation. For today's episode, we sat down with a couple of people who have been involved with electronics recycling in our state from the beginning, but first – a pop quiz. You just bought a new TV. What do you do with the old one? A) leave it on the wall to use as a place to tape your kids, artwork, B) take it to an electronics recycling collection site, or C) put it in your curbside recycling bin and hope for the best. So what do you think?
"A" might be a great way to reuse the TV, but do you really want two TVs on the wall?
We'd answer "B," taking it to an electronics recycling collection site. In this episode, you'll learn more about why recycling these items makes a lot of sense for Wisconsin's natural resources. To get us started, we sat down with the DNR's E-cycle Wisconsin coordinator Sarah Murray to learn a bit more about what the law includes and why it's so important we recycle these items. Sarah take it away.
Sarah Murray: [00:01:43] Sure. Well, I am the E-cycle Wisconsin coordinator for the DNR, and I've been in that role since the program started in 2010.
Katie Grant: [00:01:54] Yeah. What does it mean to be the E-cycling coordinator? What is a little taste of what is it that you do day to day?
Sarah Murray: [00:02:00] So there's a few different things the DNR does for the E-cycle Wisconsin program. One is we work with all the different groups that need to participate in the program, so collectors and recyclers and manufacturers need to register with us and report to us. So there's administration of that.
During those reporting periods during the year, and then looking at the data, analyzing it, making sure everything is correct, making sure, for example, that we have all the electronics collection plate information correct so we keep that updated on our website for the public, doing other outreach to let people know about the program and about why it's important to recycle electronics.
And then working with my coworkers on the team – we're actually doing physical inspections of a lot of the collection sites and recyclers and answering questions that folks have about the program. So those are some of the highlights.
Katie Grant: [00:03:01] Fantastic. So before we get too far into it, can you tell me a little bit about what actually is E-cycling and what kind of items fall into that category?
Sarah Murray: [00:03:13] Sure. E-cycling is just sort of the acute term we came up with for recycling electronics. And so, as people can imagine, there's a whole lot of things that are electronics right now. You know, almost everything it seems like is starting to have a little circuit board in it and other electronic components.
But when we talk about E-cycle Wisconsin, it was a program set up by Wisconsin's electronics recycling law to specifically collect and recycle a specific list of electronics for households and schools. So we're thinking consumer electronics: a TV, TV accessories, like a DVD player, or even a VCR, computers, including things like tablets, laptops, monitors, computer accessories and desktop printers. So those are some of the things that we're collecting through the E-cycle Wisconsin program and focused on specifically.
Katie Grant: [00:04:06] Why is it so important that we actually recycle these items rather than just tossing them into the garbage can or even throwing them in the curbside recycling bin?
Sarah Murray: [00:04:16] Yeah, there's a couple things there. So in general, it's important to recycle electronics for two primary reasons. One is some of them, especially older electronics, do contain hazardous materials. So the old tube style TVs have up to several pounds of lead embedded in the glass. A lot of the first-generation flat panel TVs and monitors had fluorescent tubes and then continuing mercury. There's other heavy metals, chemical flame retardants and things in electronics.
So we don't really want those just out in the environment or being recycled improperly where it's causing potential harm to workers. We want to make sure they're handled safely. And then the other side of that is nearly everything in electronics can be recycled. So we want to conserve those resources for the program. In the last 10 years for example we've managed to collect and recycle the equivalent of about 47 million pounds of steel, 16 million pounds of copper, 8 million pounds of aluminum, not to mention glass and plastic, and that can all be reused and made into new products.
You asked too about why we can't just put it in our curbside bins. So if you think about a lot of our electronics, like take a laptop – it's just a lot more complicated than a can, or a bottle or a cardboard box. There's a lot of different pieces to it, so it can't be handled in the same facility with the same equipment.
A lot of electronics need some degree of hand disassembly, even though they do also use shredders and other high-tech machines. When we're talking newer electronics with lithium-ion batteries too, we don't want those mixing with other trash or recycling because if the batteries get damaged, like say, if they get crushed by equipment, they can actually spark and cause a fire. And so they need to be handled at a facility that knows to look for those and can carefully remove them.
Katie Grant: [00:06:07] That's a really good point. You know, we've shared before on Facebook, the pictures of dumpsters on fire, for example, because batteries were in there or they got crushed and they did start on fire. And I think that's something that a lot of people don't realize can actually happen with that.
Sarah Murray: [00:06:26] Yeah. Batteries themselves, that's a whole topic in and of themselves there. It's great that they've been able to make them so small and light and powerful, but that also means that a lot of stuff we maybe don't even realize has a lithium battery in it in our homes could potentially be a hazard. It's not going to be a hazard in general if it's just sitting there, but if it is getting damaged, which certainly can happen if it's been sort of picked up when your garbage or your curbside recycling then, and it can cause a problem. And there's definitely been a lot of cases of that around the country.
Katie Grant: [00:06:56] Thanks Sarah for that quick look at what E-cycling is. We'll be back in a bit to learn more about how E-cycling actually works. For now we want to jump over to a conversation we had with Senator Mark Miller of Monona. Senator Miller introduced Wisconsin's E-cycling law to address the mounting problem of electronics waste in our state.
Senator, you are a fierce advocate for the environment and have supported renewable energy, clean water and conservation issues. Why are those issues so important?
Sen. Mark Miller: [00:07:28] Well, I think the natural environment is something that is a wonderful, God-given privilege that we have living on this earth and that in order to be able to support both the human and the biological diversity on this planet, we need to do our part to preserve it and to keep it for not only ourselves, but future generations.
And I've always been impressed by the Native American concept of thinking ahead seven generations. I think that's something that is sorely needed in a lot of our public life and a lot of our economic life as well. Growing up as a kid, my father took our family on many wilderness trips to the boundary waters and to the Missouri Ozarks, the Arkansas Ozarks and a number of other places.
And so I had a natural affinity for being in the outdoors. But he also was a huge fan of Aldo Leopold, who was a professor here at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and who wrote a book that's been translated into multiple languages around the world called the Sand County Almanac, and that was my father loved to read.
And he would read chapters from the Sand County Almanac to us like most kids would get read bedtime stories. And so I grew up very much appreciating the importance of the land ethic that Leopold preached. So this was a very important part of the reason I ran for the legislature – to advance Wisconsin's already leadership role and protecting the natural resources. And not only was there Aldo Leopold, we also have Gaylord Nelson, John Muir, which goes back to John Muir when he, when Wisconsin was early on in its existence. So we have a tremendous legacy, but we also have tremendous resources here from the Apostle Islands, to Devil's Lake, to the forests of the North and to the parks and recreational areas we have in our urban areas.
So, I think these are good for our public health, both physically, as well as emotionally to be able to have access to those resources, and to protect the quality of the water, because water is the lifeblood of our existence, really. And so we have our self-preservation in mind, but also responsibility for future generations.
And so that's why this was such an important issue during my legislative career.
Katie Grant: [00:10:02] Absolutely. Since 2010, you know, more than 325 million pounds of electronics have been recycled across the state. How did you originally get involved in making that happen?
Sen. Mark Miller: [00:10:15] The issue of electronic waste was brought to my attention by an advocacy group back when I was still in the Assembly. They had some model legislation, which I modified to suit Wisconsin and introduced it. However, I'm also a participant in a national organization called the national environmental legislators caucus (NCEL) National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. And it was at one of those meetings where I learned about a similar program in Minnesota that was a producer responsibility, where the producers decided how they were going to do things and required very little administrative cost from the state government. And I thought, businesses like being able to do the things themselves, they just need to be told what they have to do.
And so I liked that program. It had been in place for a little over a year in Minnesota, and so I adopted it to Wisconsin. I talked to the people in Minnesota, said if you had to do this all over again, what would you like to do better? Or what would you do differently? And we adopted a lot of those recommendations, and there was at that time some recognition, bipartisan recognition, that there was a producer's responsibility to take some care for the products they put into the environment. So we were able to get it passed. And we have been very pleased in that over the years, part of the legislation requires periodic meetings with stakeholder groups that Wisconsin's program has been a one of the ones widely recognized as one of the more effectively administered, efficiently administered in which the producers as well as the stakeholders, not just the stakeholders, but taxpayers like, because it's done entirely without any taxpayer money whatsoever. It's entirely supported by the producers.
Katie Grant: [00:12:14] Well, you said it yourself, Wisconsin's program has become a model across the country. In a lot of other States, it's regarded as one of the best ones in the country, in the decades since that was enacted, what do you see as the biggest success of the law and what will the legacy be?
Sen. Mark Miller: [00:12:33] I think that the amount of electronic waste that is collected per capita in Wisconsin is one of the things that distinguishes it from other programs and is part of the reason why it's considered highly successful, but also it's considered highly successful, as I mentioned earlier, because it is very easy for manufacturers to know what their obligation is and to do it.
But in fact, what has happened is more people are contributing and putting their electronic waste into the recycling program. The manufacturers are actually required to recycle. The people that actually do the recycling, recycling industries, are having a hard time doing that at a profit, doing the recycling at a profit.
So one of the things that I think as this expands, partner's responsibility to expand, is to make sure that there's a balance between how much manufacturers acquire to recycle and how much is generated by public in terms of wanting to get their materials back in another recycling program.
Katie Grant: [00:13:32] In short, why do you feel that people should recycle their electronics?
Sen. Mark Miller: [00:13:38] I served on the Dane County board before being elected to legislature and landfills filling up was a big concern, a big issue. So anything that we can do to reduce utilization of landfills is important because we cannot just keep finding places to put materials into and particularly materials that are valuable in themselves, or that are highly toxic. And many of the materials in a computer or an electronic device are heavy metals that have severe toxic effects that we should not be releasing into the environment. They are also expensive. It would be much smarter for us to reuse those materials in manufacturing than to go out and mine them out of the ground.
There's only a limited amount we can mine out of the ground. So it's just smart to reuse it. In addition to which, Europe and Japan have much more aggressive recycling programs than we have here in the states, and I think it's important for United States to not be a laggard, but to be a leader in the issue of smart use of the resources that the planet offers.
Katie Grant: [00:14:47] Only 25 other states across the country have some form of electronic waste laws, including Wisconsin obviously. What is your advice for those states who aren't currently doing E-cycling in some way, shape or form?
Sen. Mark Miller: [00:15:02] Well, I think they need to. I think there needs to be a recognition that the people that they're elected to serve are better served if we make smart use of the resources and the materials, and that instead of putting them in the landfills, we can reuse again and make our profitable economy reusing materials.
Instead of putting them into the landfill, I would hope that people would look at the long-term interest of the people and the land that they are elected to represent and take that into account and not be bullied by special interests that would just as soon not have any limitations put on how they operate their business. Businesses need to operate for the benefit of the entire economy, not just for the owners of the business.
And unless they can operate to the benefit of the entire economy, including taking responsibility for the products that they manufacture at the end of life, we don't need those, those businesses are not needed. And I would hope that there would be a sense of social responsibility on the part of more manufacturers to assume that, and there are a number of manufacturers that are doing that.
The carpet industry is looking for the paint industry. And hopefully I think that mattress recycling will be a much bigger thing. And as we come,we, we'll have limited landfills in which we can dump this stuff and this material can be used effectively and efficiently many times over.
Katie Grant: [00:16:37] You were elected to the Assembly in 1998 and the Senate in 2004. You're retiring this year. Looking back on your career, how would you like to be remembered?
Sen. Mark Miller: [00:16:50] Well, I came from a family legacy of public service. My mother was a state representative, one that's well-known in Wisconsin for her integrity.
And so I tried as much to follow her example of personal integrity and serving the people – that I represent the entire state with the best available knowledge that I had to make those decisions for the future of our state and the people that live in it. In retrospect, there are some decisions I wish I'd made differently, but I think in balance is that that focus – what is best for the people of the state of Wisconsin – is the thing that I'd like to be recognized for.
As well as the fact that I was an early and ferocious champion for protecting the environment. I mean, I authored the legislation that has our current renewable portfolio standard. And at the time back in the early '00s when I introduced it, it was considered wildly aggressive at 15% renewable portfolio standard.
That's how much of the electrical energy will be done, which has to be generated by renewables. But it was scaled back to 10%, which is where it still stands. Whereas other states have gone on to much higher requirements. 50%. Hawaii even has 100%. And I think in terms of climate changes, that's something that we have missed the ball on.
And I feel badly that Wisconsin was not able to take a leadership role in that because this comes close to being an existential challenge for us in terms of maintaining the climate at a stage that the kinds of life that we've come accustomed to, that we've evolved to become accustomed to, will continue for future generations.
The Great Lakes Compact is something that I was very proud for the role that I played in it. This was even amongst the eight Great Lake States to work cooperatively to preserve the quantity and the quality of the waters and the great waters of the great lakes, and that has worked reasonably well.
I think it happened at a sort of auspicious time that it was done in a bipartisan way with both Republican and Democratic governors and that in addition to the electronic recycling or things that I feel were accomplishments of my legislative career.
Katie Grant: [00:19:23] Well, Senator Miller, we certainly thank you for everything you have done to advocate for Wisconsin's natural resources over the years. Now, we've gotten a taste of what E-cycling is, how the legislation came to be and potential roadblocks for the future. So how does that all work? Let's go back to that conversation with Sarah Murray to learn a bit more. So let's take a walk through the life cycle of a recycled electronic item. I know for example, I have an old laptop sitting in my basement right now. If I wanted to recycle it tomorrow, how do I make that happen?
Sarah Murray: [00:19:58] So the first thing you'd want to just think about, especially with a computer, is your data. So have you gotten off any data that you need? And I know sometimes that's kind of a hang up for folks. I know I have an old laptop where I keep thinking I got to make sure I have all those photos off and so forth.
So that's step number one. And then you want to make sure that either you're taking steps to keep your data secure, or that you know you're taking it to a place that's going to keep your data secure. So you can do a little research depending on your tech comfort level about programs you can get to help erase data.
A lot of things like smartphones have some factory reset settings, but you can also just make sure you're taking it to a place where they're going to be careful with the device and make sure that it's going to a recycler that's either going to wipe off that data or it's going to physically destroy the memory on it.
So that's the back piece, but if you're ready to do that, we do keep a list on the DNR website of collection sites and mail back programs. So you could take a look and see what's in your area. For something smaller, like a laptop, your manufacturer may offer a free mail back program where you can print out a label.
So that's certainly one option, especially if you're not seeing collection sites near you, but otherwise you can take a look, find a place that you can drop it off, check and see if there's any fees. And obviously, especially right now, if there's any COVID restrictions or special protocols you need to follow, then you can take it in and hand it off to them.
Katie Grant: [00:21:28] Okay. So you mentioned checking to see if there were any fees. I know that's something we hear a lot about, especially on our social media. Why does it cost anything at all? And how are those costs determined?
Sarah Murray: [00:21:42] Yeah, that's a good question. So when the electronics recycling law was passed, a big part of the intent was to make it easier for households to recycle electronics.
And in order to do that, it requires manufacturers of TVs, computers, monitors and printers to register with the DNR each year and to help pay for recycling costs. So electronics manufacturers are helping to fund some portion of the electronics recycling system. The tricky part is the way the program was set up – its market-based principles.
So it didn't set a certain amount that manufacturers have to pay it just that they have to recycle a certain number of pounds each year, and then they sort of negotiate those costs with recyclers. And what we've seen over time is some of the recycling costs have gotten higher because it's harder to recycle some of the hazardous materials, and some of the materials, like the plastics, don't have as much value on the commodity markets, but the manufacturer payments haven't necessarily kept up.
So unfortunately, something that we've seen over the years is more costs, especially for things like those old TVs getting passed from recyclers down to collectors and then consumers, because the manufacturer payments aren't covering the full cost. It's something that we're hoping could potentially be changed in the future.
The DNR does a report every year making recommendations to the legislature to consider. We've definitely looked at ways to maybe figure out how we can adjust sort of the economics of the program so that people won't have to pay as much. I will say that, especially for something like a laptop, it's likely you could find something that's free.
It's really the TVs that are the trickiest part and that's not universal every place in the state. But especially IT equipment. There's a lot of places like Goodwill locations in a lot of parts of the state, some other retailers. Like I said, mail back programs are usually our free options for IT equipment.
Katie Grant: [00:23:37] The question we hear a lot about on social media is why don't we just include the cost of recycling in the cost of the item initially, kind of like a core charge type thing. Is that something that's feasible in Wisconsin and what hurdles might come with such a program?
Sarah Murray: [00:23:51] Yeah. I know people bring that up a lot.
A lot of our stakeholders have talked about that and it seems very simple on its face that you pay a small fee up front when you're already paying money for a device. I think the tricky thing, not to get too into the weeds of policy here, is that that money has to go somewhere and then somebody has to manage it.
California actually has a system like that, where you pay an upfront fee and certain types of electronics and the state manages it, but it's sort of a big bureaucracy to manage it because it's a lot of money. I mean, they're a bigger state obviously, but you need to have a lot of dedicated people managing that fund and just politically, no other state has wanted to do that.
There are discussions of maybe doing that and having to be managed by the manufacturers, but with electronics, it can get a little tricky because manufacturers of different types of electronics maybe have different interests, and then figuring out how you then get those payments back down to the recyclers and collectors.
It's not as easy as you would hope to sort of set that up and make that work for everybody.
Katie Grant: [00:24:57] Okay. Well, so let's say that I've dropped off my laptop or my TV or whatever sort of device. It may be. What happens to it from there? Once it's at the recycling facility.
Sarah Murray: [00:25:08] Yeah. So let's say you drop that off at your local municipality's collection site. They're probably gonna sort it, if they don't have you actually put it into a different vein, they'll sort and package it and get it ready to ship to the recycler so that those batteries won't get damaged and glass won't get broken, that sort of thing. And then it'll go to a recycling facility that's registered under the E-cycle Wisconsin program.
Currently about 80% by weight of what's collected under the program goes to a Wisconsin facility for this main thing. And we have a couple of very large high-tech electronics recyclers, as well as some smaller ones that do a great responsible job of pulling the device apart. Otherwise it probably goes to one somewhere in the upper Midwest.
And so the recycler will check that in. It may go to a different part of the facility, depending on whether it's a container of laptops or TVs, or sort of miscellaneous keyboards and mice and that sort of thing. And then it'll go into whatever handling it needs. So if it's devices with those batteries, they'll need to do a little bit of hand disassembly to pull those out.
Or if it's the old tube TVs, they need to take that glass picture tube out and the plastic will get recycled separately. It'll break up the glass and send that out for shipping. A lot of the larger recyclers now have big shredding equipment. So once they've removed any sort of hazardous components, they can send a lot of the rest of the shell of a laptop or a keyboard or things like that through a shredder that shreds it up and then it uses a bunch of different sorters.
So they'll be magnets to pull out steel and any currents to separate the aluminum and optical sorters for the plastic. And the goal is to get out as pure a stream as possible of different commodities, which can then be shipped. You know, if they're pulling steel out, that can be made into a bunch of new things that can just be managed like other scrap metal would be.
Katie Grant: [00:26:59] We have had this law in place here in Wisconsin for about 10 years now. And we've made really great strides with recycling those electronics, but there's still work to be done. What do you see as our biggest challenges moving forward?
Sarah Murray: [00:27:14] I mean, the first is definitely what we talked about before. I think just how much consumers are having to pay or maybe not having access to recycle certain types of electronics, especially some of those older TVs.
That's probably the number one thing we'd like to solve. It may not be free for everybody because especially those old TVs, they do have a real cost to recycle and to handle even at the collection site, but we don't want it to be such a barrier that people are either unwilling or unable to recycle.
What I would like to see us look at going forward too, is just how electronics are changing. I mean, if you think 10 years ago, the types of electronics we're using were very different. They were just starting to be smartphones and tablets, and now we have all the smart home devices and everything else like that.
The issue of data being on everything, including things like TVs that we wouldn't normally have thought about, and of the batteries being kind of a new – they've gotten rid of a lot of the hazardous materials like lead and mercury – but the batteries represent the sort of new hazard. I think those are two big challenges and for the batteries, especially, it's not even just for what we've traditionally covered under E-cycle Wisconsin, it's things like e-cigarettes and toys and all kinds of things that are electronic, I have this flashlight with the lithium battery built into it. I'm not quite sure what I'll do with it when I'm done, cause it's not part of this collection system we've set up specifically, even though a lot of recyclers could handle them.
Katie Grant: [00:28:40] What do you see as the biggest success of this program over the last 10 years?
Sarah Murray: [00:28:44] I think it has accomplished one of the main things that it set out to do, which is just improving the infrastructure for people. If we look at what collection opportunities and recycling opportunities were available to people in the past, we've seen a lot of investment and growth in the recyclers and also in the collection sites network. And it's not perfect with some of the costs, but I think it's a lot easier now if you want to recycle your electronics than it was 10 or 11 years ago.
Katie Grant: [00:29:14] What advice do you have for people heading into the holidays with regard to recycling old items that they may have upgraded this year?
Sarah Murray: [00:29:23] So one thing I would encourage people is if they're shopping for new items, take a look first and see if there's a retailer or manufacturer that does offer a free or maybe a low cost take back program. I say that, especially for TVs, because I think there are some retailers that if you're getting a TV delivered, they may haul it away.
So you want to factor that in when you're shopping. I know you're probably shopping for the best price in addition to the technology you want, but think a little bit about what you're going to do with the old one before you get the new one, because you might keep some options open. I guess it's just one tip.
And then I think resist the temptation to just put that old one, you know, in a closet or a drawer someplace else. It's something that's so easy for us all to do, especially when it's so crazy after the holidays. And we're just trying to declutter, but sit down when you have a minute to take a breath and just make a list maybe of the old things that you have tried to gather them up.
Think about that issue of the data, and then maybe make it a goal for even the spring when there are starting to be more collection events or maybe your local drop off sites have extended hours to be able to take those in so that they don't end up sitting in your drawer or your closet for two or three more years.
Katie Grant: [00:30:36] You've been listening to Wild Wisconsin, a podcast brought to you by the Wisconsin DNR. Need help finding E-cycling options near you, or have other questions about the process and want to learn more? Send those questions to DNRpodcast@wisconsin.gov and we'll work with Sarah and the rest of our staff to get you answers. For more great content, be sure to subscribe to Wild Wisconsin wherever you get your podcasts.
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