Saying 'So Long' to E-Waste ; States Can Act against Toxins in Consumer Electronics

By The Monitor's View | The Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Saying 'So Long' to E-Waste ; States Can Act against Toxins in Consumer Electronics


The Monitor's View, The Christian Science Monitor


From cellphones to iPods, from PDAs to PCs, Americans love the latest gadget. Yet this profusion of innovation also creates a problem: obsolete electronic devices, many with toxic parts, are stacking up in closets and basements, and eventually end up in a dump. In all, Americans own about 2 billion electronic gizmos, or 25 per household.

This "e-waste" is only about 2 percent by weight of the nation's municipal solid-waste stream, yet it is one of the fastest growing segments. It's especially troublesome because circuit boards, cathode ray tubes, and flat-panel displays contain toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, or lead that are considered harmful if they leach into local groundwater.

Each year, some 50 million computers and 20 million televisions become obsolete, according to a recent Government Accountability Office study. But only about 10 percent of e-waste is recycled, the rest is landfilled, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

And as consumers throw out their conventional TV sets for digital high-definition television, the worry is that these old TVs will put billions of pounds of lead into the environment.

At least 25 states are considering bills that would regulate e- waste. Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, and Maine already ban e- waste from landfills, boosting recycling in those states. But as more states set up rules, consumer electronics manufacturers are pushing for a national program to avoid the costs of complying with differing state laws. The industry also wants "shared responsibility among all the stakeholders" to avoid being held solely responsible for the toxic parts it sells in its wares. One example is a California fee on retail sales of such electronic items - something retailers oppose - that helps pay for recycling.

Federal program not the best way

Congress is now weighing two different types of bills, each aimed at creating a national plan for e-waste recycling. Last month, a Senate committee held hearings on a bill that would ladle out tax incentives to companies and individuals who recycle in order to jump- start a free-market approach. A House bill would set up a "grant and fee" program run by the EPA, a more bureaucratic approach. …

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