Senate panel advances controversial bid to allow dumping of toxic electronics in landfills

Senate panel advances controversial bid to allow dumping of toxic electronics in landfills

- in Environment, Top Story
Electronic equipment contains toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury, beryllium and cadmium, which can leak into the landfills. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

That sleek flat panel TV with the ultra high-definition screen — or the anvil of an ancient model that can still muster a picture — are safe when hanging on your living room wall. But crush them in a landfill and their contents are toxic.

A controversial provision in the state legislature’s Regulatory Reform Bill would allow local governments to opt out of the statewide ban on disposing of electronics in landfills. The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee gave the bill a favorable report Thursday, although the measure will likely change significantly before the end of the session.

Sen. Norm Sanderson, an eastern North Carolina Republican and the committee’s co-chair, said the supply of old electronics exceeds the demand. “Go out back of any nonprofit resells this stuff, and they don’t know what to do with it,” he said. “We’ve got to handle this problem.”

In 2010, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting televisions, computers, monitors, printers, scanners and scanner-fax machines from being disposed of in landfills. In 2015, lawmakers amended the ban to allow keyboards and mice to be thrown away and not recycled.

Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws establishing e-waste recycling programs; 17 states, including North Carolina, ban e-waste from landfills.

States have enacted these bans because electronic equipment contains toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury, beryllium, cadmium and even flame retardants, which can leak into the landfills or escape into the air, especially when the equipment is crushed. These additional emissions could make it more difficult for landfills to comply with federal and state air quality rules.

Older TVs with cathode ray tubes are particularly hazardous because of their lead content.  Although older models are dying out — their average lifespan is 13.5 years — Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) figures show that still more than a quarter of TVs in North Carolina are of this era.

Older TVs with cathode ray tubes are particularly hazardous because of their lead content. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

Newer models of electronics can contain lithium ion batteries, which, if released into the environment, are hazardous. And flat-panel TVs generally have a shorter lifespan than their cathode ray counterparts — just nine years.

Sen. Andy Wells, a Republican from Hickory, said dumping electronics in landfills doesn’t threaten the environment because contaminated leachate is collected and then disposed of. However, landfill owners pay for that leachate to be hauled offsite for disposal. (Two years ago, Rep. Jimmy Dixon sponsored legislation to allow that leachate to be sprayed into the air, which would have saved landfill owners money; the bill failed.)

Although old TVs equipped with cathode ray tubes contain more hazardous materials than new models, Sen. Harper Peterson, a New Hanover County Democrat, noted that “flat screens still contain lead and mercury. With regard to recycling, I appreciate the economy of that it is cyclical, but public health is not cyclical.”

Wells’ argument also doesn’t account for air emissions; nor does it consider that landfill capacity is limited. In 2015, DEQ estimated that if North Carolina’s average rate of landfill use stayed steady at 7.8 million tons per year, it had 20 years’ worth of space left. If TVs and electronics are no longer diverted from landfills, those facilities could reach capacity sooner.

To keep its landfills from overflowing, North Carolina already pays to send some of its waste out of state. An NC State University report noted that North Carolina “continues to ship the majority of its waste out of state, making it one of the top exporters” in the nation. From 2013 to 2014, the report said, North Carolina paid to export 528,000 tons of waste, primarily to South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia. The state imported 192,000 tons.

North Carolina generates revenue from its recycling programs, said Joy Hicks, legislative liaison for DEQ. Weakening the ban, she said, would have “environmental and economic impacts.”

Six counties have certified e-waste recycling centers, worth $55 million in private investment, according to DEQ figures: Anson, Iredell, Catawba, Granville, Stanly, Rowan and Rockingham.

Anson and Rockingham are classified by the commerce department as Tier 1 counties — those among the most economically distressed.

Computer and TV manufacturers must also pay an annual fee in North Carolina — ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 — and implement a recycling plan. Local governments can receive DEQ money to support electronics collection programs.

Although China has sharply reduced the amount of recycled waste it accepts from the US, there is still a market for reusing materials in e-waste, such as companies that make lead smelters, ceramic tiles and industrial glass.

The only industry representative to speak Thursday was Mike Brinchek of the state chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America. He told the committee that the organization “doesn’t believe the bill aligns with our purpose of responsible waste management.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, co-sponsored a separate electronics recycling bill, House Bill 759. Among its provisions is a comprehensive study of recycling requirements for discarded computer equipment and televisions in light of changing market demand for e-waste.

“That’s a more long-term solution than lifting the moratorium,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat representing Durham, Granville and Person counties.