E-Waste Disposal -- States' Computer-Age Headache

 

Starting next April, Californians may pay $6 to $10 more when they buy a new television or computer to offset the cost of recycling discarded electronics equipment.

The fee is imposed by a law signed by Gov. Gray Davis last month that aims to eliminate a growing junk-heap of computer and television monitors. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) contain high concentrations of lead, and have been banned from state landfills since 2001 for fear they will contaminate ground water.

California's environmental protection agency estimates six million monitors are stacked in state homes and offices waiting to be tossed.

California is not alone in trying to cope with discarded electronics products. More than 50 bills were introduced in 29 states this year addressing the environmental and fiscal impacts of e-waste, according to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.

Few of those bills have passed, and none are as far-reaching as California's new law. The latter will fund statewide collection and recycling of e-waste, and requires toxic materials like lead and mercury to be eliminated from electronic products sold in the state by 2007. California's law also establishes a first-in-the-nation ban on the export of e-waste to foreign countries that don't meet U.S. environmental protection standards.

"This is a great start by California. Now other states need to follow suit," said David Wood, director of the Grassroots Recycling Network, a Madison, Wis., based nonprofit that has developed model legislation for e-waste management.

Lawmakers in Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon have created task forces to investigate the e-waste problem.

Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maine also passed a ban similar to California's that outlaws the dumping of CRTs.

There is no precise estimate of how much e-waste is piling up in the nation's landfills, but the National Safety Council estimates that 500 million defunct computers and monitors will be discarded by 2007.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that e-waste accounts for 40 percent of lead found in landfills and 70 percent of heavy metals, like mercury and cadmium.

The National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) opposes bans on the dumping of e-wastes. The NSWMA is a nonprofit that represents the commercial waste industry, and argues that e-wastes have not been proven to contaminate the environment.

"It is very clear that there is no scientific evidence that (E-waste) causes problems," Chaz Miller, NWMA state programs director, said.

Computer monitors have been shown to fail the EPA acid leach aid test, which indicates lead could contaminate the environment from a landfill, Wood said. But there have not yet been any reported cases of actual contamination.

"The fact that there is no evidence of contamination is because not enough time has passed for landfills to be tested," Wood said.

Outlawing e-waste dumping can be costly for states because someone has to pay for recycling. A few electronics companies, like Hewlett-Packard Co., operate their own recycling programs. Often, local governments bear the brunt of the cost.

"If (e-wastes) are going to be banned from disposal, you've got an unfunded mandate for recycling, so local governments are stuck with a bill of recycling products they never manufactured," Miller said.

Many environmentalists advocate making the electronics industry responsible for its products from "cradle to grave."

"We have to shift the cost and responsibility onto brand owners. It's not just an equity issue, it's because the problems with these products is that they're toxic, so the prime directive is to change the way the product is designed," Wood said.

State and local governments, which are major consumers of computer products, may soon use their purchasing power to pressure the industry to recycle their products.

Wood told Stateline.org that a consortium of state governments are negotiating an agreement with computer manufacturers that would mandate a take-back plan for all state-purchased computer equipment.

The project is being undertaken by the Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA), a 10-year-old organization of purchasing directors from15 states. Thirty states currently purchase computer equipment under prices negotiated by the Alliance.

WSCA spokesperson Ron Jones said an RFP (request for proposal) that would mandate that computer brand-owners take back computers sold to state governments after they've outlived their usefulness will be discussed at the Alliance's annual meeting in New Mexico this December.

"Nothing has happened on this yet, it's just an idea we've discussed. But we're looking at ways, possibly under solid waste act statutes that require states to buy products that are recyclable," Jones said.

Nonprofit organizations that collect donated clothing and household goods such Goodwill Industries are hoping states do something soon to stem the pile-up of castoff e-waste.

Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, national spokesperson for Goodwill, said because so few people buy refurbished computers, Goodwill loses $25 to $30 on each donated computer it has to recycle.

"Nonprofit organizations are essentially acting as agents of the state for the benefit of the community and should not have to bear the financial burden of proper e-waste disposal," Bragale said.

 
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