Editorial | Half a Law, 10 Times the Cost

State’s unfunded electronic waste mandate needs to be addressed

November 10, 2012 

How does Horry County’s bill for disposing of old TVs and computers unexpectedly spike from $30,000 a year to around $300,000 a year, raising with it the possibility of a tax increase for county residents? It wasn’t a giant increase in TV purchases. No, blame a hurry-up-and-stop legislative process.

To understand, we need to back up a bit. Back in 2009, legislators decided that the state needed to have a comprehensive plan for recycling old electronics. It was a good idea. Many old computers can be reused or recycled and many old TVs and other electronics that have reached the end of their lives are full of dangerous pollutants that should be disposed of in a responsible manner.

To fix this problem, the legislature proposed, debated and eventually passed a two-part bill. The first part was simple enough. Starting in July 2011, the state’s landfills were no longer allowed to accept any of these old electronics. Instead, they must be sent to an approved recycler. The second part was a bit more complicated.

In order to pay for this increase in recycling, manufacturers who sold TVs, computers or other covered devices in the state would have to create recycling programs (or pay a fee that would help cover the cost of such programs). Consumers would be able to take advantage of mail-back systems or regional collection sites run by the manufacturers, where old electronics would be taken and disposed of. In this way, the groups creating pollutants would also be the ones bearing the cost of dealing with them. Sounds simple enough. But as often happens, the devil is in the details.

The law was signed by the governor in May 2010, and the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control dutifully set about crafting the specific guidelines that would apply to the manufacturers’ program. The department submitted those guidelines to the legislature last year for its approval, but legislators never OK’d them. As a result, the second part of the two-part bill remains unenforced. There is no recycling program in place paid for by manufacturers. Meanwhile, the ban on adding electronics to the state’s landfills went into force.

At first, this wasn’t much of a problem. The state had a contract with Creative Recycling, an N.C. company, to handle its electronic recycling, and local governments could piggyback on it for free, meaning all they had to pay was the processing costs to get the trash up to N.C., about $30,000 a year in Horry County’s case.

But then the state contract was renegotiated earlier this year and what had been a free service all of a sudden began costing cities and counties tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lindsey Kremlick, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Budget and Control Board, which handled the contract, said that the pricing change was made “to more accurately reflect market conditions,” including an increased cost to Creative Recycling. The recycling executive who handled the negotiation was traveling this week and could not be reached, but it’s not hard to imagine that when electronics were banned from landfills in July 2011, Creative Recycling’s work all of a sudden shot up, with no similar increase in their contract.

So where does all of this leave us today? Horry County continues to work with Creative Recycling, but rather than sending TVs and computers off for free, it now pays about $400 per ton. Mike Bessant with the Horry County Solid Waste Authority said the SWA ships out about two tractor-trailer loads of the waste each week, and he expects that to add up to somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 per year. In Myrtle Beach, the city pays about $20,000 per year to get rid of the old electronics.

How does that compare to other waste? Bessant said it was explained to him this way at a DHEC meeting this year: “The average state fee for solid waste is about $35 a ton for garbage. The average state fee for construction and demolition debris is $26 a ton. And for a TV that the tube has been taken out of, it’s $1,000 a ton.”

Confronted with these new costs, many cities have stopped collecting TVs from businesses. Charitable donors to local Goodwill or Salvation Army stores, for instance, will discover that the agencies are not taking TVs anymore, because they are no longer allowed to pass on the broken or unsold ones.

In short, it’s an enormous unbudgeted change that will have to either be absorbed by cutting spending elsewhere (two new planned recycling convenience centers in the county have already been put on hold) or by raising taxes (a solution the council expects to debate at its budget retreat next week).

It’s a cost that counties and cities shouldn’t have to bear. The legislature’s original plan was a good one. If we want to recycle all of our old electronics, then those manufacturers who create the problem should be the ones who pay for it. Half a law is not the solution. Legislators’ way forward seems clear: DHEC is redrawing up guidelines for manufacturers’ recovery programs, to present when the legislature convenes in January. They need to be passed, and local governments should be relieved of this unfunded mandate. The topic will likely come up when local officials meet Monday with the area’s legislative delegation. Hopefully, legislators get the message.

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