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Federal bill targets electronic waste

Hoping to wake the country from its "e-waste nightmare," a U.S. congressman takes aim at the increasing volumes of obsolete computers.

Hoping to wake the country from its "e-waste nightmare," a U.S. congressman has introduced a bill intended to address the increasing volumes of obsolete computers.

The Computer Hazardous-Waste Infrastructure Program (CHIP) Act would require the Environmental Protection Agency to administer a grant program that would help set up computer recycling across the United States. The program would be funded by a fee of up to $10 on all retail sales of desktop and laptop PCs and computer monitors.

The bill, introduced Thursday by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., is the first such legislation to appear at the federal level. A number of states, most notably California, have similar bills under consideration as their budgets tighten and the costs of collecting and handling discarded electronics grow.

Manufacturers, meanwhile, have been taking steps to stave off governmental action. The Electronic Industries Alliance, for instance, has been campaigning against the California bill, arguing that retail fees would scare away consumers and unfairly target certain companies. The trade group also has set up a grant program to study the disposal of household electronics.

And in recent months, PC makers including Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have unveiled their own recycling initiatives, as have retailers such as Best Buy and Staples. These efforts also include fees, but only at the end of a computer's useful life and only if its owner chooses to dispose of the device that way.

In proposing the legislation, Thompson cited the volume of computers entering the U.S. waste stream--41 million PCs this year, with 500 million that will need to be addressed by 2007. He also pointed to the potential for environmental harm from some of the materials that go into a computer, asserting that 70 percent of heavy metals such as lead and mercury in U.S. landfills comes from electronic waste.

"We can't afford to continue endangering our health and environment and filling our landfills by ignoring the problems created by computer waste," Thompson said in a statement. "Since our recycling programs cannot handle the vast amounts of waste, up to 80 percent of the e-waste is actually exported to Asia, where it ends up in riverbeds or is illegally and improperly disposed."

The bill would also require the EPA to study the quantities of computer waste being generated and to include statistics on export of the waste from the United States. The bill is expected to go to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.