TCS Daily

Talking E-Trash

By Dana Joel Gattuso - August 20, 2002 12:00 AM

Haste maketh waste and in the fast-pace world of technology, there's a lot of it. Americans trash 220 million pounds of old computers and other forms of electronic waste each year, according to the EPA. And while that's still just a tiny fraction - 1.5 percent - of the nation's total waste stream, e-waste is quickly becoming a regulatory quagmire of gargantuan proportions.

Last month, California came close to being the first state to enact legislation holding e-manufacturers responsible for their e-mess. One bill would have made manufacturers take back and recycle their electronic refuse or pay a hefty fine. A companion bill would have established a state-run program for recycling cathode ray tubes (CRTs) - those glass picture tubes commonly found in TV and computer monitors - and slapped consumers with a $30 fee on top of new computer purchases to pay for it.

Backed by the greens, take-back mandates are regulators' new no-nonsense response to the millions of computers, TVs, and electronics ready for the garbage heap. Making manufacturers recycle their own castoffs, so the thinking goes, will ensure ecological product design and assembly and prevent lead, mercury, cadmium, and flame retardant chemicals from ending up in landfills where they could seep through protective liners and contaminate groundwater. And front-end fees ensure no consumer gets away without making his contribution.

California's bills would probably be law right now were it not for the fact that Californians aren't as stupid as they look. The Electronics Industry Alliance polled consumers for their reaction to the pending legislation and learned that most would simply buy new products online from out-of-state retailers to avoid the fee. Legislators backed off, and the legislation is on hold.

Will other states scale the same learning curve? Some of them have drafted mandatory take-back rules but none to date has been signed into law. Other states are waiting it out for federal legislation, hopeful that Washington will address interstate commerce issues, prevent a hodge-podge of state legislation, and level the playing field.

Enter Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) who last month introduced the Computer Hazardous-Waste Infrastructure Program (CHIP) Act. CHIP would require the EPA to set up a grant program, providing funds to organizations, states, or localities that recycle computers in an "efficient and environmentally responsible" manner. The program would be funded through a $10 fee on retail purchases of PCs and monitors.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of the new e-waste reg rage is that the European Union started the whole thing. Christened the "WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment") Directive," the law requires manufacturers of member nations to take back and recycle 65 to 75 percent of their end-of-life electronic and electrical equipment. Toxic components, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and certain flame-retardants will be phased out of the production process altogether.
The U.S. clearly should not go there. Watch electronics production in Europe come to a screeching halt once this becomes law as producers become expert at garbage collection and inept at making computers. If manufacturers change product design at all, it won't be for the better. They will likely switch from plastic components to metal because it's easier to recycle. That means clunkier, less durable products that are neither consumer-friendly nor eco-friendly since the shipment of heavier goods increases energy usage.

There is good news. Manufacturers are moving on their own to recycle their products, rather than waiting for government to make them. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sony are just a few of the many companies operating their own take-back and recycling programs. How to make it work? Keep government's nose out of the e-garbage.

Dana Joel Gattuso is an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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