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Second thoughts stall PC recycling

Two efforts to address e-waste sputter, as a California bill goes back to the drawing board and a government-industry summit makes little or no progress.

Two efforts to address electronics recycling sputtered this week, as a California bill went back to the drawing board and a government-industry summit made little or no progress.

The developments were the latest in a struggle to address the growing volume of so-called e-waste as corporations and consumers discard outmoded PCs, TV sets, cell phones and other devices. A central question in the debate over how best to handle the castoffs is cost: What level of fees might be necessary, at what point in a product's life cycle, and who would pay them?

The bill, S.B. 1523, which targets CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors, moved forward from the California Assembly's natural resources committee but with the details stripped out, largely because of opposition from the high-tech industry. One of those details called for consumers to pay a fee of up to $30 when buying a CRT monitor in the state. The money would be earmarked for recycling programs.

Whether the provisions remain stripped out depends on what happens between now and the bill's appearance before the Assembly's appropriations committee later this summer. The bill's author, Sen. Byron Sher, and other interested parties are expected to use the time to come up with language that's more palatable to electronics makers. Otherwise, the original language would be reinstated.

"We're encouraged that the legislators have recognized what that legislation in its current form could do to companies and to California's economy," said Kerry Fennelly, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA). A recent EIA-backed study suggested that consumers would balk at buying a new PC or other consumer-electronics products if recycling fees of as little as $5 were added to the purchase price.

Aside from damaging the state's economy, the EIA argued, the bill is unfair to California-based companies. The group referred to the fees called for in the bill as a "tech tax" that unfairly targets California businesses by failing to address sales of electronic devices over the Internet and through catalogs. The same EIA-backed study claimed that consumers would probably buy their electronic products online, even with the shipping and handling costs involved, to avoid paying a recycling fee at a retail store.

The citizen sponsor of the bill said that although legislators were largely supportive of the fee provision, they had no desire to put the state's businesses at risk or to anger consumers. He also took issue with the industry's characterization.

"It's very clear that what we're talking about is a fee, not a tax," said Mark Murray, executive director of the organization Californians Against Waste. "Fees are under different rules. The state has the right to assess fees."

As for the sticky matter of out-of-state sellers, those details still need to be worked out in the coming weeks. "It's not a legal question but one of practicality: What tools can the state of California use to compel companies without a presence in the state" to pay the fees, Murray said.

Environmental groups and some European governments think manufacturers should pick up the multimillion-dollar tab for recycling. The debate in the United States has focused on involving consumers, with either a front-end fee at the point of sale or an end-of-life fee on a device's disposal.

At a meeting this week of the National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) in Minneapolis, discussion of a national recycling system financed by front-end fees slipped out of gear and left some participants wondering what comes next.

Government representatives participating in the group voiced frustration about the lack of commitment by the electronics industry and retailers to construct a pact that would meet the needs of state and local agencies in handling e-waste. Electronics makers, meanwhile, say that although they don't like the idea of state-by-state legislation, it's too early to know the most effective way to build a comprehensive system.

"One difficulty we see there is predicting what's going to happen three years down the road," said Bryant Hilton, a spokesman for Dell Computer, which is observing only the NEPSI talks. "There may well be an option that's a whole lot cheaper by that time."

Coordinated by the Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies at the University of Tennessee, NEPSI brings together representatives from state and local governments, manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and environmental groups. It's a voluntary organization, with its success depending on all the involved parties reaching a consensus. But though it has no real legislative power--indeed, some lawmakers aren't even aware it exists--California's legislators are monitoring the group's progress. Given the current standoff, though, that progress looks to be slow at best, and the prospects have become dimmer for NEPSI to reach an accord by its scheduled deadline of September.

"There was not the sense that we were imminent in reaching an agreement," said Scott Cassell, director of the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. "No one appears interested in leaving the table. However, we're still groping for reasons that we're at the table."