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Politicos ponder new action against e-waste

As old TVs, monitors, and gadgets pile up in landfills, Congress is again questioning what new laws are needed to encourage more efficient recycling and reuse.

What to do about millions of tons of unwanted electronics, like the heap pictured here? That's the question that U.S. Congress members continue to ponder, albeit with little action so far.
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

WASHINGTON--As heaps of discarded televisions, computers, and other electronics grow ever more colossal, some members of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday said they're focusing new attention on how to manage the waste.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency's latest figures, less than 15 percent of unwanted electronics actually reached recycling or re-use programs in 2005, with nearly 2 million tons ending up in landfills or incinerators, many laced with toxins like mercury and cadmium. Some politicians suggested the need for a new governmental strategy to make recycling and reuse of electronics more efficient, pointing to regulations adopted by the European Union years ago as evidence that the United States lags behind.

"We consider this one of our major areas of concern this year," House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said at a hearing here, which was cut short because of a congressional visit from retiring Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

It's perhaps even more critical to deal with the problem sooner than later, , some politicians and advocates at the hearing said, since piles of analog televisions are expected to be thrown out in conjunction with next year's congressionally-mandated shift to all-digital broadcasts.

At the moment, there's no uniform federal law or regulations governing the disposal or "recycling" of electronics items. Thirteen states--including California, Washington, Maine, and Minnesota--have so-called "e-waste" laws on their books, but they vary widely, and not all of those programs have gone live yet.

Still, the issue is hardly new.

For years, numerous major electronics manufacturers have been pushing for Congress to step in and set nationwide standards, arguing that the current trend of state-by-state laws will only breed inefficiency, confusion, and higher prices for consumers.

Back in 2005, members of Congress formed an which proclaimed it would take the lead on developing a national recycling system. On more than one occasion, the head of that group, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), has proposed a bill , which would require a fee of up to $10 to be assessed on retail sales of certain computers, monitors, and electronic devices to fund a national recycling program. But it has not gone anywhere.

On Wednesday, representatives from Sony Electronics, HP, and an environmental campaign known as the Electronics Take-Back Coalition said they preferred new federal rules that would require product manufacturers to absorb the costs and burden of "taking back" products, as opposed to charging consumers a separate fee on top of their purchases.

For example, California, the first state to pass an e-waste law about five years ago, collects an "advance recovery fee" of between $6 and 10 on certain electronics purchases that's designed to fund a statewide recycling program. At a recent meeting, there were suggestions that the fee be increased to $10 to 30, according to HP recycling director Renee St. Denis.

"We see that as a burden on current consumers that is really going to pay for the waste of former consumers," said St. Denis, who added that her company has found California's system to be "inefficient."

Federal legislation is also essential because not all states are "fiscally responsible" when handed such fees, so the money may not be around when companies need it, said Michael Williams, general counsel of Sony Electronics.

Both Sony and HP already operate their own recycling programs. Sony's Williams said his company offers recycling services at no charge to its customers, abiding by a mantra of "If we make it, we take it," and its long-term goal is to have discarded product drop-off locations within 20 miles of 95 percent of the U.S. population. HP's St. Denis said her company recycled almost 40 million pounds of electronic waste in the United States last year and reused or donated 30 million more pounds.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), the committee's vice chairman, said he appreciated those efforts but added, "there's more we're going to have to do to make sure this is done across the board."

Ted Smith, chairman of the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, called on Congress not only to require such "producer responsibility" but to prohibit exporting toxic electronic waste to poor countries for disposal, which is clearly something that states don't have authority to do. A recent study in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology reported adverse health and environmental effects in China and other developing countries where such shipments are processed.

It's not clear whether new legislation will arrive anytime soon or what exactly it will look like. A Democratic committee aide said the hearing marked just a first step aimed at determining what new laws are needed, and there's no timeline for action. If legislation is developed, it would most likely be focused on federally funded research and development programs related to improving recycling programs and developing greener products at the outset, she said.

HP's St. Denis, for her part, rattled off a long wishlist of topics that could use more research, including new applications for reusing leaded glass from cathode ray tubes (CRTs) used in old generations of computer monitors, TVs, and other displays; and the carbon impact of the actual process of collecting, transporting, and processing large volumes of discarded electronics.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the Republican ranking member, said he believes the House's passage last September of the Green Chemistry Research and Development Act, which would authorize some $165 million over three years for research into products that reduce or eliminate hazardous waste, could be helpful to the e-waste dilemma. That bill still awaits a Senate vote.

One member suggested a more fundamental problem: Consumers need to stop, well, consuming, as much, said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.).

"Here we are today talking about a problem that's almost totally self-inflicted," he said, adding: "People need to work; why can't they work rebuilding this equipment or repairing it rather than just throwing it away?"