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Will recycling fees hurt PC sales?

Legislation in California is drawing fire from the Electronic Industries Alliance, whose ammunition is a survey showing consumers' opposition to certain recycling fees.

    Electronics recycling legislation in California is drawing fire from a high-tech trade group, whose ammunition is a survey showing consumers' opposition to certain recycling fees.

    The Electronic Industries Alliance on Wednesday released the results of a study that found some respondents would balk at buying a new PC or other consumer electronics products if recycling fees of as little as $5 were added to the purchase price. As the size of the fee increases, so too does resistance, the study said.

    Two bills before the California legislature propose to set up a system for collecting and recycling CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors--the displays in most desktop computers and television sets--that would draw financing from money collected at the point of sale. The draft legislation sets the fee at not more than $30 per device.

    CRTs have drawn the attention of public health advocates because a key component--up to about 8 pounds by some estimates--is lead, which is used as a shield against radiation. If the monitors are improperly disposed of in landfills or incinerators, the lead and other materials could be toxic to those downstream or downwind.

    "EIA strongly encourages responsible recycling of electronics products as the best option at the end of life," Heather Bowman, the EIA's director of environmental policy, said in a statement. "But we need to ensure that any solution addresses the needs of the consumer. They play a vital role in successful electronics recycling."

    Indeed, most everyone involved in electronics recycling says the same thing: Whatever rules government might mandate and whatever schemes the industry comes up with, recycling won't be effective without consumers buying into it.

    The EIA-backed survey, conducted by eBrain Market Research, found that while three-quarters or more of respondents favor recycling efforts, both in general and in the case of consumer electronics, many are opposed to being told they have to pay for it.

    One-third of respondents said that an up-front fee of $5 would decrease their likelihood of buying consumer electronics products, 53 percent said a $10 fee would be a deterrent, and 74 percent said a $20 fee would give them pause. Those fees would represent a relatively small percentage of the price of a typical PC or TV. On Wednesday, for instance, Dell Computer had a Dimension 4500 system with a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, a 17-inch monitor and a free CD burner or DVD upgrade priced at $849 with rebate.

    Some in the recycling community wondered if consumers understand that their options might not go far beyond that sort of fee. California is just one of several states considering ways to underwrite the costs of electronics recycling, and the expense is likely to be passed on to the consumer in one way or another, they say.

    "It would be interesting to know if consumers are interested in paying extra taxes or paying end-of-life fees, because those are the two alternatives," said Scott Cassel, director of the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

    And respondents' hesitance doesn't necessarily mean that those people wouldn't buy a computer or television at all. The survey reported that 58 percent of households would probably buy their electronic products online, even with the shipping and handling costs involved, to avoid paying a recycling fee at a retail store.

    To date, most recycling efforts have been piecemeal, and where fees are involved, they've come at the end of an electronic device's useful lifespan. Dell, for instance, later this year plans to launch a recycling service under which consumers would end up paying about $15 to $25 to ship a PC or TV to a recycler. Similar programs from IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others charge about the same.