EPA mulls e-waste changes

In an attempt to encourage recycling of PCs and televisions, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to ease rules regarding disposal of the products.

Margaret Kane Former Staff writer, CNET News
Margaret is a former news editor for CNET News, based in the Boston bureau.
Margaret Kane
4 min read
In an attempt to encourage recycling of PCs and televisions, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to ease rules regarding their disposal.

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Both types of devices generally contain CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors, each containing up to 8 pounds of lead, which protects users of the products from radiation. When the monitors are thrown out, however, that lead may pose a pollution threat--a danger that has drawn increasing scrutiny over the last several years.

The EPA has said that discarded electronic devices account for one of the fastest-growing components of the waste stream. It estimates that more than 250 million computers will be thrown out over the next five years.

The rules change would discourage the flow of e-waste to landfills and incinerators and promote safe reuse and recycling, the agency said.

Under the proposed new rule, if monitors are being considered for possible reuse, they would be classified as "products" instead of "waste," so they would not have to meet the waste requirements of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the overarching solid-waste regulations for the United States.

Glass removed from monitors would also no longer be classified as waste, as long as it is sent for recycling and managed under the requirements specified in the proposal. The glass panel of a CRT monitor is one of the main locations for lead.

"By streamlining our waste regulations, we encourage more reuse and recycling, cut costs and reduce paperwork," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said in a release. "At the same time, we continue to protect public health and the environment by providing better methods for reusing, recycling and managing materials containing hazardous substances such as lead and mercury."

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The ever-cheaper prices of PCs are a boon to consumers, but they've helped create a waste management nightmare, since those sales have meant more and more older systems being thrown out every year. The EPA estimates that, overall, electronic devices including PCs and TV sets account for some 2 million tons of trash annually in the United States alone.

But tackling that problem isn't cheap or easy. In part, that's because the machines are repositories of potentially dangerous materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants. PC makers, recyclers, municipalities and others have been working on ways to make the process of recovery, refurbishment and disposal safer and less expensive.

The EPA proposal should be a step toward cutting costs, said Heather Bowman, director of environmental affairs at the Electronic Industries Alliance trade group.

"Without the rule (change), recycling costs are prohibitive," she said. "Recyclers have to have special hazardous waste trucks to handle PCs and televisions that yesterday were in people's living rooms."

Environmental groups gave some approval to the agency's move, but the groups complained that it doesn't go far enough toward addressing other vexing issues of e-waste.

"The EPA is rightfully concerned about keeping it out of landfills and wanting it to be recycled, but right now we don't have the capacity to recycle all this material in the proper fashion," said David Wood, program director of the GrassRoots Recycling Network and organizing director of the Computer TakeBack Campaign.

In addition, if the gear doesn't end up in landfills or recycling centers in the United States, it could be shipped overseas, where dismantling can occur under even more dangerous conditions.

The EPA, Wood said, "needs to deal with (the export problem) and put in place a ban on export of hazardous waste."

But the measure could help straighten out some issues on a more local level, said Scott Cassel, director of the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Some states are already in line with the EPA proposal, but others are not, leaving a "patchwork" of regulations nationwide, he said.

"What this rule would do, once it's enacted, is it would make them consistent across the country," he said. "As we develop a collection and recycling infrastructure for used electronics, we will need to have in place regulations like this that allow for regulatory consistency in the transportation of recycling for the used equipment."

California and Massachusetts both have banned CRT monitors from landfills. And California has proposed two new laws that would finance recovery, reuse and recycling of CRT devices via a fee charged by retailers to consumers on each device sold. Some European lawmakers, meanwhile, are leaning toward having manufacturers themselves pick up the tab.

The complaints have not gone unheeded by PC companies. In the last 18 months, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sony have initiated programs to take back consumers' high-tech castoffs. Dell Computer, the latest to join in, earlier this month announced a program that will accept machines from any manufacturer for recycling, with consumers covering the cost of shipping.