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Electronics industry urges federal e-waste action

Representatives tell Congress a uniform national system--not a patchwork of local regulations--is needed for recycling.

Electronics companies on Thursday asked federal lawmakers to fashion a uniform, national policy for recycling electronic waste.

A nine-member panel appearing before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on environment and hazardous materials expressed concern that the current trend of varied state and local laws targeting e-waste management would breed inefficiency, confusion and higher prices for consumers.

Dozens of states and localities have seen e-waste measures introduced. So far, three states--California, Maine and Maryland--currently have such laws on their books, but each takes a different course.

California's rule is based on the collection of an annually adjusted "electronic waste recycling fee" levied on electronics consumers at the time of the sale. Maine's and Maryland's approaches place the burden on the manufacturer to take back used electronics. Each has drawn mixed reviews.

Rep. Paul Gillmor, an Ohio Republican who chairs the subcommittee, questioned the panelists as to whether the various players could reach a consensus on what those federal guidelines should be.

Dave McCurdy, CEO of the Electronic Industries Alliance, said all the industry wants is a "streamlined, uniform, regulatory agreement," in which manufacturers, retailers and consumers share the cost of recycling.

But the panelists' views diverged on how to do so. The Cellular Telephone Industry Association called for a "definitive federal endorsement of a voluntary national recycling program" but made no explicit mention of legislation.

Several entities voiced support for national policy that would incorporate a California-style system of fee collection. Goodwill Industries Chairman Gerald Davis said his organization, which received more than 23 million pounds of used electronics donations in 2004 and often racks up hefty landfill fees in the process, supported a system that would split such a fee between the consumer and manufacturer.

David Thompson, a Panasonic executive, noted that a coalition of 16 electronics manufacturers, including Canon, Epson, IBM, Panasonic and Sony, was also sharply critical of the Maine law. That state's approach, he said, places an unfair burden on "historic" manufacturers, who are inevitably responsible for a larger number of makes and brands than their younger competitors.

But that criticism was not shared by Renee St. Denis of Hewlett-Packard, whose two large recycling facilities, by her estimation, undertake the largest amount of electronics recycling in the country.

"Congress should reject attempts to impose a new tax on American consumers and to create bureaucratic recycling programs," she said, noting that a tax system does not guarantee that any amount of electronic devices will be recycled.

The best approach, St. Denis said, is for federal lawmakers to create a system in which the manufacturers themselves set up recycling programs and bear the necessary costs.

A handful of federal legislative approaches have already been introduced this term, including the National Computer Recycling Act in the House and the Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act in the Senate. The latter measure includes tax credits for those who collect, recycle or arrange for recycling designated amounts of e-waste, a tactic that has drawn support from entities like the Consumer Electronics Association.