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[GreenYes] Fwd: Mercury News 02-20-2002 High-tech discards a growing concern

 Posted on Wed, Feb. 20, 2002
High-tech discards a growing concern
By Noam Levey
Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

In the back lot of Hackett Enterprises in North San Jose is a side of the high-tech revolution most never see: personal computers, monitors, printers and circuit boards dumped in cardboard boxes and piled unceremoniously on pallets.

This is e-waste, the toxic byproduct of the lightning pace of innovation that is fast relegating yesterday's breakthroughs to scrap.

Hackett is recycling some of this refuse. But millions of other obsolete computers -- each filled with toxic materials including lead, mercury and cadmium -- are piling up in the garages, basements and back bedrooms of California consumers.

And no one has figured out what to do with them.

``It is a waste crisis,'' said Mark Murray, director of the Californians Against Waste Foundation, a Sacramento-based group that has joined with local governments to urge state leaders to address a problem that many say could become an ecological disaster.

Several state leaders, including Sen. Byron Sher, D-San Jose, are talking about legislation that would require the high-tech industry to help solve the problem. But deciding who should pay for a cleanup that could cost more than $500 million in California won't be easy.

Representatives of the tech industry, who wield powerful influence in Sacramento and are expected to help pull the state out of recession, say they are worried new mandates on California manufacturers could put them at a competitive disadvantage. And their opposition could portend a battle pitting environmentalists and local governments against high-tech.

The debate may heat up this week when Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero, from the Los Angeles suburb of Rosemead, introduces a bill that would require manufacturers to set up their own take-back programs or pay a fee to the state.

``California must act now,'' Romero said. ``This is a serious, serious problem, and I don't believe we should sit back and twiddle our thumbs until someone else comes up with a solution.''

Building problem

There is little debate that accumulating piles of e-waste threatens the environment.

Though the hazardous materials used in computers, televisions and other electronics are not considered dangerous while the machines are in use, they pose a serious public health risk when the machines are discarded. Mercury in switches and flat-panel screens, cadmium in batteries and circuit boards, and flame retardants in plastic covers are all highly toxic.

Most troubling is lead, according to environmental officials. Cathode ray tubes, used in almost all video monitors and televisions, each contain four to eight pounds of lead. Last year, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control banned them from landfills.

But the landfill ban does nothing to address the surging volume of waste. It is estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 computers become obsolete in California every day, thanks to an accelerating pace of innovation that has cut the average lifespan of a home computer in half in recent years.

As machines become obsolete, many end up mothballed in homes. A recent survey by the California Integrated Waste Management Board found Californians are storing more than 6 million old computers and televisions in their homes. Small businesses may have hundreds of thousands more.

``The public doesn't know what to do with these products,'' said Robert Haley, who coordinates recycling programs in the city of San Francisco.

Cities, including San Francisco and San Jose, and some manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM have started to develop programs to recycle e-waste. And a handful of companies like San Jose-based Hackett are making money breaking apart computers and refurbishing parts.

But most programs charge consumers, usually $10 to $30 a unit. And thus far, the number of consumers participating has numbered only in the thousands.

San Jose collected about 1,200 monitors over six months last year, according to the city's environmental services department.

``This is probably not the solution to all the problems we face,'' Jeff Kuypers, associate environmental program manager at HP's recycling center in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, told a legislative committee recently.

The solution, many say, is a system that could recycle millions, not thousands, of obsolete electronics.

Paying for recycling

But the price tag for such a system could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Who should pay that bill is becoming one of the most vexing public policy issues confronting California.

Many who follow the e-waste issue say that asking consumers to pay the cost of disposing of old computers after they have bought them simply doesn't work, as evidenced by the staggering number of old computers gathering dust in homes. And cities such as San Jose say they cannot afford to offer free pick-ups. Many instead point to the high-tech industry, which they say must take responsibility for helping solve the e-waste crisis.

Some suggest that a fee be added to the sale of new electronics to fund a recycling system. There are also suggestions that consumers be asked to put a deposit on new electronics. Still others say the high-tech industry should be given a deadline to develop its own system. That could also provide incentives to manufacturers to reduce the amount of toxic materials in computers and other electronics.

The American Electronics Association, which represents the high-tech industry, has indicated it is willing to begin discussing the issue. But there are signs that a solution will not be easy.

AEA lobbyist Kelly Milton said manufacturers want California to delay the start of any new regulations until negotiators in Washington, D.C., come up with a program to deal with the e-waste problem on a national level.

``It's wouldn't be smart to do this piecemeal,'' Milton said, explaining that because computers are bought and sold across state lines, it would be difficult to impose fees on electronics sold only in California.

The high-tech industry has developed strong ties with Gov. Gray Davis and many state legislators. And as the state struggles through a recession, few want to do anything to hobble companies that provide high-paying jobs and have helped fuel the economic expansion of the past decade.


The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition lists organizations that take old computers on its Web site at recycle/recycletable.html .

Contact Noam Levey at or (916) 325-4315.

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