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Growing Threat of Computers In, Poison Out

By Mark Murray - LA Times - Aug 23 2002

Near and far, scrap from electronics is an environmental problem

High-tech trade association lobbyists are working overtime in the California Legislature, seeking to add a perverse corollary to the famous "Moore's Law." The lobbyists' formula: Although computing power increases exponentially every 18 months, the technology we use to manage our discarded electronics retreats a couple of centuries in the same period.

In February, we saw tape and photos of Chinese laborers disassembling discarded U.S. computers and terminals with hammers (technology that goes back millenniums) and simple levers (even older). A report issued that month by the environmental groups Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Network documented that toxic electronic scrap from the U.S. was being exported to developing countries such as China, India and Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of laborers, working without protective gear or safety awareness, break down components by hand. The results? Drinking water supplies so badly polluted that water has to be trucked in from other regions and alarming reports of health problems, especially among children.

The picture in California is also grim, but legislation now being debated in the state Capitol could help. The electronics industry should get behind this effort instead of arguing for ineffective voluntary programs. Obsolete electronics, including microcomputers, are among the fastest-growing portions of our waste stream, increasing at almost three times the rate of the rest of our municipal garbage.

According to European governmental studies, this equipment contains a number of toxic substances. The glass in computer video and TV screens--the cathode ray tubes, or CRTs--contain lead to protect users from radiation dangers, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Last year, the state Department of Health Services affirmed that CRTs contained hazardous levels of lead and banned their disposal in municipal and private solid-waste landfills.

The sheer volume of electronic scrap is threatening to overcome our existing waste management programs. Here in California, about 10,000 computers and TVs become obsolete every day. What happens when more of us get around to cleaning out our garages, closets and storage sheds?

We've seen the development of a sophisticated and effective system for recycling beverage cans and bottles, but the infrastructure for electronics waste remains weak, underfunded and inconsistent.

Some computer manufacturers, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have recently established voluntary "pay as you throw" programs for consumers, charging between $15 and $35, depending on the size of the unit. But the high cost, as well as low consumer awareness, has discouraged large-scale participation.

Some large markets, such as the European Union, have already begun to require that manufacturers take responsibility both for the design and long-term handling of their products. We must start doing a better job of that in the U.S.

Given how well computer marketers advertise the speed of new systems, and how well companies roll out new product, the failure to provide good information and support to consumers is inexcusable. It is reminiscent of another failed product stewardship effort--used tires. Some fly-by-night recyclers pocketed fees paid by well-meaning consumers, then stacked up the old tires and eventually abandoned them--leaving taxpayers to clean up the mess.

According to estimates from Californians Against Waste, our state's total cost of properly handling obsolete computers and TVs could be $75 million to $150 million annually. That's a steep cost, but we can't keep ignoring the problem. The high-tech industry should take steps to avoid inevitable--and justly deserved--blame by supporting legislation proposed by state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) that would establish a front-end fee to pay for easy-to-use collection programs at no further cost to consumers. A companion measure by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) would set state goals to increase computer and other electronics waste recycling and consumer education measures.

Lobbyists from the Electronics Industry Assn. and other industry trade associations oppose Sher's measure, calling it a "tech tax." It is not. Industry groups also oppose Romero's timetable and standards for recycling programs while refusing to work in good faith with consumer groups and environmental advocates on national legislation.

The electronics industry should stop being the problem and start being part of the solution, or it will earn itself a reputation as a global environmental polluter of the worst order.

Mark Murray is executive director of Californians Against Waste

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