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Mulling the mountain of electronic waste
McClatchy Newspapers


July 28, 2005

WASHINGTON - There's a mountain of the stuff out there. It's loaded with toxic substances like lead, mercury and cadmium. But no one is clear what should be done about it, or even if government should be doing it.

Such is the situation facing the growing problem of electronic waste - those televisions and computer monitors waiting to be junked by millions of consumers standing in line at electronics stores to buy more.

After the first-ever congressional hearing on the issue, prompted by actions already taken by California and two other states, the only consensus seemed to be that there is none.

The hearing was prompted in part by legislation introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. Thompson and a bipartisan group of House members have formed a working group to help spread the word about the problem.

"The average lifespan of a computer is only two years, and Americans are disposing of 3,000 tons of computers each day," Thompson said at the hearing.

But without uniform policy, consumers don't know where they can dispose of them and too often, Thompson said, the old sets are exported to countries far less equipped to protect workers from the toxins.

The fact that the House Energy and Commerce Committee's environment and hazardous materials panel held the hearing this month was a victory for the working group. The House panel will be back at it again in September.

But the message that's ring the loudest is that no one has a clue on how best to handle the problem, or - based on the testimony of federal Environmental Protection Agency officials - whether there really is much of a problem.

Although California has banned the disposal of television sets and monitors at public landfills on the presumption that they are hazardous materials, Barry Breen, deputy solid waste administrator at the EPA, said there's no compelling evidence that the dead units are leaching death into the dumps.

"We're not finding that solid waste landfills are incapable of taking them," he said. But he said that problem also is shifting so dramatically it's hard to keep ahead of it.

For example, old televisions and monitors that have cathode-ray tubes are giving way to new technology, such as liquid crystal displays. And as that shift occurs, the disposal problem shifts from lead used to shield consumers in the old tube sets to mercury used in the new LCD units.

Benjamin Wu, deputy undersecretary of technology for the Commerce Department, quoted industry statistics suggesting that some 3 billion units are headed for the trash heap by the end of the decade. Most of that still is in the closet or garage of the consumers because of a sense that they have some value, or uncertainty over where to dispose of them.

But Wu said he doesn't think it should necessarily fall on the government's shoulders to address the problem. "Industry-led consensus" is the preferred route, although he acknowledged that there isn't any now.

"Unanimity and consensus is limited," he said. "Searching for a balanced approach is paramount but quite frankly, it's elusive."

That's because the industry isn't monolithic. There are big manufacturers and stealth makers who are difficult to find. Fees at the time of purchase are problematic because so many sets are bought over the Internet or shipped in from out-of-state retailers.

What the industry most fears is what seems to be happening by default - states enacting their own laws.

"We've heard deep concerns from industry that solving this issue at the state level may become problematic because the cost of compliance with a patchwork of international and state laws can be daunting," Wu said.

California, Maine and most recently Maryland have enacted their own laws to curb landfill disposal of the old sets.

California's charges consumers from $6 to $10 every time they buy a new television or monitor to cover the costs of recycling the old ones. Maine is assessing a fee on manufacturers based on the number of units they sell in the state. And Maryland has enacted a law that charges manufacturers a set fee to reimburse county governments for the cost of recycling the e-junk.


Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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