Toxic Trade News / 30 December 2008
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State's e-cycling law takes effect Thursday
Some fear it will discourage refurbishing
by Robert McClure (P-I Reporter), Seattle Post-Intelligencer
  Thomas Norman, left, and Brad Grosvold at 3R Technology in South Seattle unload discarded computers, monitors and printers Monday.

© Mike Urban / P-I
30 December 2008 – A Washington law taking effect Thursday is being hailed as groundbreaking because it's the first in the nation to require electronics manufacturers to pay to recycle computers. But critics say it actually discourages the most eco-friendly way to handle an old computer: Refurbishing it for further consumer use.

The law sets up a statewide network of about 200 industry-funded collection sites for computers, computer monitors, laptops and TVs. Consumers, small governments and businesses with fewer than 50 employees can drop them off for free.

The collection sites, many of which are thrift stores, are paid to ship the material to one of three state-approved computer recyclers, which break down the electronics into component parts for recycling.

Collection sites are free to pluck a computer out of the waste stream and sell it.

What the collection sites cannot do is fool around with a broken computer to make it work again. That's the problem. Although that may work fine for thrift stores, it has left longtime computer recyclers facing an uncertain future.

"It will reduce the number of computers that we can refurbish," said Charles Brennick, director of Wallingford-based InterConnection, a nonprofit group that provides computers to schools and community groups around the world. "At least 50 percent of the computers we receive have minor problems and aren't functional. So we will have to increase donations by at least 50 percent to make up the difference."

Meanwhile, the new law will make thrift stores into newfound competitors. Brennick predicts that he will lose revenue that InterConnection now earns by selling refurbished computers to the public. And with fewer computers at hand, InterConnection will have fewer to use in a program that provides computer-skills training to the low-income and unemployed in Seattle.

The prospects aren't great even for a larger for-profit recycler such as 3R Technology of South Seattle, although it is to some degree insulated by a portfolio of clients that includes large businesses and governments. They still must pay to dispose of used electronics.

"For the average consumer, the law does a good job," 3R owner Glen Gaidos said. "But in terms of reuse, there's a whole industry set up around reuse, repair and recycling. ... In 12 or 18 months, (it) might be out of business."

Even environmentalists who supported the law admit that it falls short on this important point.

"The most environmentally preferable way to manage this waste stream is to extend the life of (computers) and use them as long as possible," said Sarah Westervelt, e-stewardship coordinator for the Seattle-based Basel Action Network or BAN. "That is, without a doubt, the No. 1 priority, and the state law does not do a good job of encouraging that."

Her position is backed by a 2004 United Nations University study that found that making a typical desktop computer and monitor requires more than 500 pounds of fossil fuel, nearly 50 pounds of chemicals and more than 3,300 pounds of water -- 1.8 tons overall, about the weight of a sport utility vehicle.

Passed in 2006, Washington's law was the first to require electronics manufacturers to pay for the entire recycling process. It's designed to avoid the "sham" recycling uncovered in Third World countries by Seattle-based BAN and its allies, which documented extensive contamination of land and water in China, Nigeria and other countries, as well as extremely dangerous working conditions for laborers.

It requires the processors of the collected material to submit extensive documentation showing they are not allowing such sham recycling.

But legislators didn't count on the rules being written to prevent longtime computer recyclers from doing their thing. The Legislature authorized electronics manufacturers to set up a quasigovernmental recycling authority, and told them to pay for it.

In writing regulations to put the new law into effect, the Ecology Department at one point proposed allowing refurbishers to reuse computers, but dropped that in the final version. Manufacturers had a much heavier influence on the rule-making process than did computer refurbishers.

Miles Kuntz, who is in charge of managing the effort for Ecology, said recyclers are free to keep operating as they have, and not join Washington's so-called e-cycling system.

Changing the new system to let collection sites open up computers and tinker could recreate the problem the law is supposed to solve, Kuntz said.

"If we allow massive reuse ... any kind of tracking is absent," Kuntz said. "It would have to be written so it's pretty airtight as to what could and couldn't happen."

Another shortcoming in the new law is the security of data on computers themselves, said Mark Dabek, co-founder of Re PC in South Seattle and Tukwila. Nothing in the law requires collection sites or the ultimate recyclers to destroy data on hard drives.

As for the industry itself, Dabek said, "We really don't know how it's going to work. We're all gambling with our futures here."

Lisa Sepanski of the King County Department of Natural Resources has been working with local computer recyclers to help them stay afloat. One solution, she said, would be for the shop taking in a computer to pay the consumer a nominal fee, perhaps 50 cents or a dollar, for each computer that comes in. But that would increase their costs.

InterConnection's Brennick and 3R's Gaidos have come up with another alternative that they hope will solve the problem. Their just-launched "Choose to Reuse" program will offer consumers bringing in computers the choice of putting the computer into the state program or their program.

Both are free, but only the latter option will offer consumers security about their data being destroyed. More information is available online at

Westervelt, the environmentalist, looks forward to changes that will encourage computer reuse.

But to get to the heart of the problem, she said, something more must be done to encourage or require computer manufacturers to stop using elements such as lead, chromium and mercury that can prove toxic. The ultimate answer, she said, is a system that allows consumers to keep a computer for many years, swapping out components as they become obsolete.

Such a system also must provide incentives for manufacturers to avoid planned obsolescence, she said. Because even if the toxic materials are kept out of computers, they'll continue to become garbage every few years.

"There's got to be a whole-systems approach," she said.



State residents can recycle these items free after Thursday: Computers, monitors, portable computers and TVs. Officials urge residents not to show up in the first few weeks as the new program gets rolling. For participating e-cyclers and other information, see


Televisions: You may not need to get a new TV after the switch to digital over-the-air broadcasting. For more information, see or call 888-388-2009.

More information on e-cycling:

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or
Read his blog on the environment at

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Basel Action Network is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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