Is a PC landfill tax inevitable?

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh digs into a proposal to clean up a landfill mess caused by electronic junk.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, delights in warning the public about what he calls the looming dangers of landfill-clogging electronic gadgetry.

"Over 3,000 tons of electronics are discarded every day in our country," says Thompson, whose district includes the huge swath of coast stretching from Mendocino to the Oregon border. "Obsolete computers are taking up space in closets, warehouses and landfills, and each of these computers contains dangerous materials such as lead and chromium, which pose a significant risk to human health and the environment."

Last month, Thompson and 21 other politicians introduced the National Computer Recycling Act, a proposal that would levy a national sales tax of $10 on each CRT or LCD computer monitor and nearly any other electronic device with a "central processing unit." Proceeds would be awarded to "individuals or organizations" in the form of recycling grants.

The tax would apply to Internet and in-person purchases and cover new and used items, even ones sold at computer shows and flea markets. The Environmental Protection Agency would be responsible for defining exactly what products would be subject to the levy (televisions, typewriters and calculators are expressly exempted, but BlackBerries, cell phones and iPods are not).

But is Thompson's proposal necessary?

Thompson's 3,000-ton figure sure sounds shocking--until you realize that it represents less than 1/10,000th of the more than 30 million tons of solid waste produced by the United States each day. That's according to the Environmental Protection Agency's own information, which also suggests the amount of e-waste entering landfills may be remaining constant year after year. The National Safety Council even estimates that the number of discarded computers will begin declining this year.

Even if new e-waste taxes are wise, state politicians may be better equipped to address the topic with customized legislation. Five states including California, Virginia and Massachusetts already have banned CRTs from landfills. Even more are considering it, and California has imposed an "advanced recovery" tax on new video displays, and TVs as well.

Keep the lead in?
Probably the most compelling argument Thompson and his allies make relates to the potential environmental hazards of toxic substances, especially lead, "leaching" from electronic gear buried in landfills. One of his co-sponsors, Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), warns that urgent "congressional action is necessary to curb the rising tide of this toxic waste."

Each CRT typically contains about 4 pounds of lead, which is necessary to shield computer users from harmful radiation, and the element also appears in some types of solder used in circuit boards. Lead is a well-known health risk when ingested.

Advocacy groups such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition have seized on this topic and published reports calling discarded electronic goods "toxic traps" and suggesting new laws authorizing cities to "charge-back manufacturers for the cost of managing their electronic wastes." Lead and other heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, the coalition warns, end up being "released into the environment, posing a hazardous legacy for current and future generations" because they'll seep out of the landfill.

If true, that would be worrisome. But the science may not back up that claim so far.

A new report by Dana Gattuso of the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute surveys the current state of scientific research and concludes that politicians are acting on "hype and misinformation."

One 2003 study performed by researchers Timothy Townsend and Yong-Chul Jang of the University of Florida tested soil from 11 actual landfills that included color TVs, monitors and circuit boards. They found concentrations of lead that were less than 1 percent of that which the EPA's computer models had predicted. "There is no compelling evidence" that e-waste is having a negative impact on landfills, Townsend was quoted by Waste Age magazine as saying.

Gattuso also cites a yearlong study that the Solid Waste Association of North America released last year. The study, which was peer-reviewed, concluded that even if heavy metals do leach into landfills, they pose no existing or future threat because they are contained by a landfill's design. Its authors say that "landfills can provide an effective safety net for heavy metal-containing products that are not reduced or recycled."

Perhaps Thompson and his political allies are right and e-waste is a growing menace that demands a new federal tax instead of state-by-state solutions. But extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, and so far that may be lacking.