Recycling paper, plastic, and glass has become routine, but what are you supposed to do with the old laptop or analog television that’s taking up precious storage space in your attic or basement?
Electronic devices have certainly flooded the marketplace: Americans today own more than 2 billion of them, approximately 25 per household, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But as consumers continue to upgrade to the most up-to-date gadgets technology has to offer, the number of obsolete devices grows exponentially each year.
And the refuse is more than just a nuisance or an eyesore. Such devices often contain potentially hazardous materials — mercury, arsenic, titanium, aluminum, and (if nothing else) lead.
A 2003 EPA report estimates that roughly 50 million computers and 20 million televisions are disposed of each year, but that only 10 percent are recycled. This situation has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Congress. The Senate subcommittee on Superfund and Waste Management met recently to discuss a national approach to managing the increasingly growing burden of e-waste — the first Senate hearing of its kind.
“Municipal landfills are meant to hold trash, not toxic materials,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, the ranking member of the subcommittee. “This is a silent problem, but we can’t let toxins silently seep into our drinking water.”
A few states, like California, Maine, and Maryland, have passed e-waste legislation, and 26 other states are considering disposal regulations. The tech industry also offers some solutions, such as EBay’s Rethink Initiative, which coordinates the recycling programs of numerous vendors.
Still, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Sen. Jim Talent, R-Missouri, are leading a bipartisan effort to encourage e-waste recycling throughout the country. The Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, introduced in March, gives tax credits to consumers and businesses that voluntarily recycle e-waste.
“We have proposed a pro-consumer, pro-environment, and pro-technology bill to jump-start a nationwide recycling infrastructure for electronic waste,” Wyden said. “Our bipartisan approach is the first to rely on incentives, rather than up-front fees or end-of-life penalties, to deal with electronic waste.”
Michael Vitelli, senior vice president of Best Buy, speaking on behalf of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, applauded the move toward a national e-waste recycling program. He said a federal solution, implemented by local authorities, is preferable to possibly 50 separate state regulations and countless municipal guidelines.
Wyden said the e-waste recycling tax credit program would cost approximately US$300 million to $400 million per year. But he added that the bill limits the tax credit to three years both to encourage participation and to give the EPA time to find other ways to pay for a nationwide program.
Fellow committee member Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vermont, suggested that perhaps consumers could pay a deposit when purchasing electronics, then get a refund on the deposit when the item is properly recycled. “That sounds too logical for government,” Wyden replied.
Although the specifics of a national program may still be vague, House members have also joined in the campaign for a universal e-waste recycling program. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a founding member of the Congressional E-Waste Working Group, testified in favor of a national plan, calling for both bipartisan and bicameral support to figure out the best solution. He introduced the House e-waste recycling bill H.R. 425 in January and has been active on this issue since he was elected to Congress in 1998.
“It is not very often Congress has the chance to get a jump-start on solving a problem,” Wyden said. “This is one place where a bipartisan effort can make a real difference.”
— Lesley K. McCullough writes for the Medill News Service.