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RealTime IT News

Tech's Dirty Little Recycling Secret

While Congress dawdles over the need of a national electronic-waste recycling initiative, states are moving ahead with their own programs. It's an e-waste scenario that doesn't please electronics and technology manufacturers, wholesalers or retailers.

Thursday, they again urged Congress to take action, primarily in the form of national legislation pre-empting existing state recycling laws.

Three states -- California, Maryland and Maine -- already have legislation imposing fees on various stakeholders, including consumers, to ensure that discarded PC's, televisions, PDAs and other electronic devices are properly recycled. More than a dozen other states are expected to enact similar laws by the end of the year.

For the electronics industry, it's an evolving nightmare of different laws, rules and fees on a state-by-state basis.

"Environmental challenges are too often addressed by Congress after a problem already exists," Hewlett-Packard's Renee St. Denis told a House panel. "This issue presents an opportunity for Congress to act proactively in developing a solution to an emerging challenge."

The subject of e-waste is not something many companies are willing to talk about, but last year government, private enterprise and consumers discarded 150 million tons of electronic equipment. The federal government alone weekly throws away 10,000 computers, printers, cell phones and other electronic devices.

E-waste is the hazardous material generated by the disposal of electronics. A personal computer contains at least 36 chemicals, including lead and mercury. Lead shields users of monitors from electromagnetic fields and mercury is used in backlights to conserve energy. Tossed in a dump, though, they become part of a toxic stew.

"Growing mountains of e-waste are clogging our nation's landfills and posing great risk to Americans' health and to our natural environment," Senator Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) said earlier this year in introducing legislation targeting e-waste. "As technology improves and folks get newer and faster computers, they need a safe and easy way to get rid of their old machines."

Europe is already taking action. The European Union (EU) Directive on the Restriction of Use of Certain Hazardous Substances bans the use of six substances, including lead and mercury, in electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market after July 1 of next year.

In the United States, though, no federal action is even pending, leaving it to the states to address the issue.

"Electronics recycling is a national issue that warrants a national solution," Parker E. Brugge, senior director and environmental counsel for the Consumer Electronics Association, told lawmakers Thursday afternoon.

While lawmakers are generally in agreement that a national effort is in order, the open question is who pays for it?

California imposes an advanced recycling fee (ARF) on retailers of $8-10 per device, depending on size, to fund a statewide government recycling program. The retailers generally pass the fee on to consumers.

In Maine, manufacturers are required to pay for the recycling of their products, while in Maryland, manufacturers pay a fee to finance computer recycling programs around the state.

"In any scenario, the public will pay for the recycling of electronic waste," Michael Vitelli of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, told the panel. "If the government provides the solution, consumers pay in the form of additional taxes. If the government mandates a fee, the consumer pays."

Vitelli added, "If the manufacturer must include recycling in their product cost, the consumer pays. But it is only in this last solution - where the costs of recycling are part of the cost of the products - that there is an inherent incentive to reduce both the need to recycle and the long term costs of recycling."

Wyden's bill endorses tax credits to consumers, recyclers, manufacturers and retailers as an incentive to responsibly recycle computers, monitors and television sets.

"Americans don't want to throw their electronic scraps out with the garbage, but without a recycling infrastructure, sometimes the only alternative is stockpiling them in their homes," said bill co-sponsor Jim Talent (R-Mo.). "We want to provide an incentive for people to recycle electronic waste and create an infrastructure that makes the process as convenient and cost-effective as possible."

While Congress considers all this, the piles of discarded computers continue to stack up like so much toxic waste.