By Mark Henricks
Five years and $320 million into a government-run electronic waste recycling program, the state of California is looking for answers. One of them may be to stop having government handle e-waste using fees charged to consumers, and rather to try the industry-funded approach used by other states.
It’s not that California is having trouble finding e-waste. Since the recycling program began on Jan. 1, 2005, the program has recycled about 17 million computer monitors and television sets -- about 840 million pounds. The problem, as reported in the Sacramento Bee, is that $22.6 million worth of the claims recyclers have submitted for recycling CRTs have been rejected. That’s about 6.5 percent of claims, and the fraud rate is causing CalRecycle and the Department of Toxic Substances Control to sound the alarm.
Indeed, the problems seem to be getting worse. In the first year of the program, state investigators found $1.9 million in faulty and fraudulent claims. By 2008, that number had risen to $6.8 million; last year it climbed to $9.8 million.
The issues with the program are manifold. Monitors submitted for recycling are required to come from California, and recyclers have to provide logbooks with names and addresses of original owners. Investigators have said the documents are rife with made-up information, such as listing large numbers of people with the same names as movie stars and sports celebrities. Other times the documents list dead people. Some are simply incomplete or, when auditors contact listed donors, the people say they never discarded a monitor.
According to investigators, recyclers are collecting monitors from outside the state and bringing them to California to collect the recycling bounty. Other shenanigans involve surreptitiously selling still-working California-collected monitors overseas, then attaching their paperwork to monitors collected in other states and presenting the foreign monitors for the e-waste bounty.
The financial lure to break the rules can be enticing. Old computer monitors worth a dollar or less apiece when sold on the open market in other states can be worth as much as $10 to a collector turning them in for recycling in California. Recyclers, in turn, can get as much as $18 from the state for recycling them.
The newspaper reported some recyclers have had more than a third of their claims rejected for these and other reasons by the state’s fraud investigators. More than two-dozen investigations have been started, but fines or other penalties have not yet been issued. While some of the cases have been presented to criminal investigators, no one has been prosecuted either.
California’s e-waste recycling effort spurred numerous other states to take similar actions, with one difference. In California, consumers pay an added recycling fee of up to $25 on each monitor or television set they buy. These funds pay for the government-run recycling effort. Elsewhere, manufacturers are expected to fund and manage the recycling of their own products. That seems to make a big difference in reducing opportunities and motivations for fraud of the type that has been seen in California.
Some collectors and recyclers complain that the state has denied too many of their claims. Others in the industry claim that the state hasn’t done enough to prosecute flagrant violations. Environmental advocates have also chimed in, arguing that where the waste comes from -- the main issue in fraud cases -- is irrelevant and that what’s important is that the monitors be recycled.
Two years ago the state held meetings to discuss what to do about the e-waste recycling program, which was already looking troubled. Along with doing a better job of following e-waste to its source, working harder at enforcement, and raising standards for collectors, the officials talked about having manufacturers do the recycling job as they do elsewhere. Nothing happened then and it’s uncertain whether anything will now. Meanwhile, Californians continue discarding an average of about 9,200 display tubes a day.
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