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Congress tackles e-waste in the House and nationally

The House of Representatives is considering legislation to alter its own e-waste policy, as well as a bill to fund more e-waste R&D.

WASHINGTON--If Congress can't figure out what to do with its old computers, members of the House of Representatives rationalized Wednesday, it's unlikely anyone else can.

Electronic recycling programs have been conspicuously unsuccessful, prompting the House Science and Technology Committee to draft a bill to fund grants for higher education programs related to e-waste management, as well as grants for research and development to find ways to better manage e-waste through product design, reuse, and recycling.

At a hearing Wednesday to review the initial draft of the bill, the legislators admitted they were not even sure what to do with their own used electronics and are unhappy with the way Congress disposes of its official electronic equipment.

"I've got a couple (computers) in my attic, and I keep worrying about them being there," said Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.).

"What do I do with them?" she asked the expert witnesses at the hearing. "Do I just take them to a recycling center?"

Witnesses at a hearing Wednesday discussed the merits of an e-waste bill being drafted by the House Science and Technology Committee. Stephanie Condon/CNET Networks

Biggert is hardly alone in her confusion. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, at best, only about 18 percent of electronic waste is recycled, pointed out Valerie Thomas, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

"Products need to be designed for recycling, and collection programs need to be very easy," Thomas said.

While electronic recycling and reuse programs have proven to be difficult for individuals to understand, some congressmen said the House protocol for disposing of old computers is also flawed.

Currently, once a computer from the House of Representatives no longer meets the House's standards like hard drive or processing speed requirements, it is required to be scrubbed of information and turned over to the U.S. General Services Administration. Congressmen are prohibited from selling the computers to staffers, donating them, or doing anything else with them.

"It's ludicrous we can't give our computers to local educational organizations," said Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.).

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation in January to permit congressmen to donate used computer equipment to public elementary and secondary schools.

While Baird applauded Serrano's legislation, he admitted he was hesitant to donate or recycle his personal computer out of concern over the data that may be left on the machine.

"I don't know what's on them, but I don't want somebody else to find out what's on them," he said. "I paid more money for a system that works less well, and now I can't recycle my old (computer). That's pretty stupid."

A lack of confidence in reuse programs is a fundamental problem with e-waste, said Willie Cade, CEO of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, a Chicago-based refurbishing company.

"We need people to be able to feel safe about getting rid of their equipment," Cade said. "Once that happens, they'll start bringing their equipment out."

He said that the computers brought to his facility are on average just over 10 years old, suggesting that consumers hang on to old equipment for some time--and that recyclers will have to deal with machines built out of the current toxic materials in use for some time.

However, future computer models could be built out of more sustainable, easily recycled materials, the witnesses said. The draft legislation the committee is considering could fund research for sustainable design frameworks.

"These are design challenges, and by taking on the basic research with a sustainability framework, we can change this equation," said Paul Anastas, director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale. "(Companies) could meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously."

One of the provisions of the draft bill would provide funding for consortiums of at least one nonprofit entity and at least one for-profit entity. Gordon said one of the main points of the legislation is to encourage the electronics industry to contribute to e-recycling efforts.

While the draft does not yet suggest how much money should be appropriated to the new grant programs it would create, it says that the for-profit entities involved in the consortiums would have to contribute at least 10 percent of the total R&D costs.