Lawmakers tackle national e-waste problem

House Republicans, Democrats join in push for national law as environmental groups sound alarms.

A group of legislators on both sides of the Washington aisle vowed on Tuesday to create a national plan for dealing with an alarming byproduct of the country's voracious appetite for electronics--mountains of potentially toxic waste.

To that end, four lawmakers from the U.S. House of Representatives have formed the Congressional E-Waste Working Group. The group intends to build broad political support for a national law to reduce high-tech garbage--a cause that has been largely ignored in Washington. Leading the group's charge are Representatives Mike Thompson, a California Democrat; Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican; Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York; and California Republican Mary Bono.

"The result of the working group...would be a national bill that everyone would have to comply with in regard to this issue," Thompson said in an interview following the working group's news conference.

More than 50 million computers containing lead, mercury and other toxins find their way into the trash every year, the working group said. Every day in the United States, people throw out 3,000 tons of computers, with the life of the average machines spanning just two years, the group added.

Environmental group Greenpeace offers an even grimmer picture. As much as 4,000 tons of high-tech waste is discarded in the world every hour--that's equal in weight to about 1,000 elephants, the group says.

Two states--California and Maine--have already enacted computer and TV recycling laws. Under its law, California began last year imposing fees of up to $10 per device on the sale of computer monitors and TV sets. The fees, mainly paid by consumers upon purchase of new machines, fund a statewide recycling program. Maine's law is even broader and applies to more types of devices.

Thompson, who has introduced several national bills over the past few years, said he's not wedded to any particular state's program. But with 24 other states weighing various e-waste bills, a single national standard would help consumers, retailers and manufacturers avoid confusion, he said.

Computer manufacturers and industry groups are, not surprisingly, wary of regulation. They lined up quickly on Tuesday to bend legislators' ears. Following the news conference, the Consumer Electronics Association, Panasonic, Sony, Hewlett-Packard and several other industry groups sponsored a lunch briefing for officials and lawmakers. The title of the talk was "Electronic Device Recycling: Is a National Implementation Approach Necessary?"

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