Toxic computers

Manufacturers agree a fee might encourage computer recycling.

A MOUNTING stockpile of toxic waste lurks in the Puget Sound area— the region's aging computers. Local governments say the industry that created all this junk ought to help dispose of it properly. A pioneering agreement drafted last week in Washington, D.C., is a sign that the industry is ready to pitch in. On March 20, the National Electronic Products Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), a negotiating committee that pairs public officials with executives at Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Apple, announced a proposal to add a "front-end" recycling fee to the price of new computers.

Right now, individuals who cart their busted computers to recyclers or mail them back to the manufacturer have to pay for being responsible. But if the cost of recycling were included in a computer's purchase price, the reasoning goes, money could be raised that would allow recyclers to accept computers for free, preventing many more from being dumped.

Public officials around Puget Sound are especially disturbed by recent reports estimating the volume of electronic equipment that Americans will throw away over the next decade—500 million pieces containing more than a billion pounds of lead, cadmium, and mercury. This region ranks well above the national average in computer ownership; King County calculates that two out of three area households have one, and many are fast succumbing to obsolescence. Computer waste consultant David Stitzhal says local governments will be stuck with the tab for diverting this widening torrent of electronic waste from landfills unless consumers pay for the disposal cost up front. "Manufacture globally, dispose locally; that's not a system that works well for the taxpayer," says Stitzhal.

King County prohibits computers from being chucked in its landfills (though no one knows how many are surreptitiously dropped in dumpsters), and other Washington counties, including Snohomish, are following suit. But those measures don't make the computer junk gathering in basements and garages go away. Nor do they prevent our "e-waste" from being shipped to China or India and fouling drinking water there.

Seattle businessman Craig Lorch would love it if all that cast-off equipment landed on the doorstep of his recycling company, Total Reclaim. Lorch's company strips metals and glass from computer monitors, TVs, and other electronics and sells the material to other companies for reuse. But even with a ready supply of discarded equipment, Lorch says, his business is currently a break-even proposition at best. It's difficult to sell some of the material, and the price he gets is low, he says.

One of NEPSI's primary goals is to make the recycling business more viable. But no one knows yet exactly how a fee collected at purchase would find its way to recyclers. Sego Jackson, a Snohomish County planner and NEPSI member, says the money could be deposited with an organization that would reimburse collectors based on how much equipment they take in. The hope, he says, is that those collection points would include not just recycling centers but also the stores where people got their computers. "We want to set up a disposal system that is as easy to use as buying a computer," says Jackson.

Stitzhal points out that a front-end recycling fee on electronics is not exactly a new idea; Europe adopted the practice years ago. Manufacturers in America have steadily fought a similar system here, but in the last couple of years they've been losing the battle in incremental stages. Massachusetts and California have banned computer monitors and other picture tube devices from their landfills, while other states have moved to outlaw the disposal of particular toxins contained in electronic equipment—such as lead and mercury. Last month, state senators in California proposed legislation that would impose a disposal fee on computers sold there.

Scott Cassel, who as the director of Massachussetts' Product Stewardship Institute has been bargaining with computer manufacturers on behalf of local governments, says a thickening catacomb of local regulations has helped bring the industry to the table. "It has increased the urgency that all stakeholders feel in coming to a national solution. They don't want to have to follow a patchwork of legislation—what we have to offer is a consistent system," says Cassel.

The significance of last week's NEPSI agreement should not be overstated, however. Manufacturers have not agreed to actually levy a recycling fee voluntarily. Instead, they have simply acknowledged that a front-end fee imposed by the federal government could boost recycling efforts.

Environmental groups, while praising the agreement over recycling fees, are far from satisfied. They say state governments should not halt their own regulation efforts while negotiations continue.

kfullerton@seattleweekly.com

 
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