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Calif. Senate advances 'e-waste' bill

State senators approve legislation that would step up pressure on high-tech companies to focus on recycling obsolete computers and related gear.

The California Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would step up pressure on high-tech companies to focus on recycling obsolete computers and related gear.

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SB 20, authored by Sen. Byron Sher, D-Stanford, would require electronics manufacturers to set up and fund recycling plans. Before it can become a law, the bill has to be approved by the state assembly, and, if it passes there, by Gov. Gray Davis.

If the bill is signed into law, manufacturing companies by the beginning of 2005 would have to arrange for the recovery of 50 percent of all machines sold during the preceding year. That rate would grow to 70 percent in 2007 and 90 percent in 2010. According to the bill, just 20 percent of obsolete computers and TV sets are currently recovered for recycling. Under the bill, companies could either set up and finance state-approved drop-off programs, under which people could bring their older computers, or the companies could pay the state to do it. They would also have to develop recycling plans.

The issue of recycling old computer equipment, or "e-waste," has become more pronounced in recent years, as volumes have increased and as the products have gained notoriety for their potentially toxic components. Californians have more than 6 million obsolete computer monitors and TV sets stockpiled in their homes, according to the bill, which cites figures from the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

Elements such as mercury and lead and other more complex chemicals are integral parts of CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors, circuit boards and housings. They aren't generally considered dangerous when PCs and printers are in use, but environmentalists warn that those ingredients can be toxic when the products get scraped and are incinerated or are dumped into landfills to sit for years on end.

The high-tech sector also has been accused of dumping old computers in other countries, especially in the Guiyu region of southern China. Poor residents of that area were regularly handling toxic materials while working to break apart old computers that were primarily imported from North America, according to a report released last year by the Basel Action Network, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and other groups.

PC makers including Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and IBM already have systems in place to deal with old computers, but their voluntary recycling programs require consumers and businesses to take the initiative to return the devices, often at a cost. Some companies also have begun redesigning products so that they'll be easier to recycle when they've outlived their usefulness. HP, for instance, is removing the mercury filament from its older scanners because even small amounts of the element could taint a large batch of recycled machines.

Gov. Davis last year vetoed a bill similar to SB 20, but that earlier bill didn't allow high-tech companies the option to run such programs themselves, as the new one does.

Although the current bill would affect only those companies doing business in California, the state, which is home to the tech-heavy Silicon Valley, often leads the country in environmental and other trends. Similar bills have been proposed in other states and in the U.S. Congress.

Computer makers are wary of many such efforts, especially those at the state level. Sony said it supports recycling programs and will back federal efforts to rein in computer waste. But the company is concerned that a series of disparate state measures could put some computer makers at a disadvantage.

"In its present form we don't believe the bill serves the best interest of the people of the state, manufacturers or the environment," Sony spokesman Greg Dvorken said of the California measure. "We're in the process of reviewing it and plan to submit recommendations to achieve the end product we all want--an efficient, effective and sustainable recycling system."

Representatives from high-tech manufacturing groups, which have worried in the past that such recycling legislation could result in regulations that are arbitrary and heavy-handed, did not immediately return calls for comment.