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There's An Easy Answer For E-Waste

By Mike Cooper, State Representitive; Seattle PI

Do you ever wonder what makes the many technological devices that we depend on in daily life run? Few of us know what's inside computers, monitors, cell phones and other products. In this case, what we don't know may hurt us.

Many high-tech appliances contain toxic ingredients, such as lead and mercury, that pose both occupational and environmental threats. While these products are in use, they rarely emit any of these chemicals into the air or on the ground. However, when placed in storage or dumped in a trash heap, they present a toxic threat to anyone who comes in contact with them. This threat is known as electronic waste or e-waste.

About 1.7 million computers, computer monitors and laptop units were discarded or placed in storage in Washington state last year. That figure does not include the other high-tech appliances and computer peripherals such as printers, faxes, scanners, keyboards and cell phones. With rapidly advancing developments in technology, the amount of e-waste will increase significantly in the coming years.

Currently, local governments are stuck with the bill for handling toxic e-waste. For example, Snohomish County recently financed a clean-out of broken electronics from local school districts; 135 tons of materials were taken apart at a cost to taxpayers of $55,000. Landfills and other waste sites are being forced to deal with these chemicals -- some of which are slipped into regular trash containers -- at an incredibly high cost. In some cases, this waste is being exported to countries such as China, India or Pakistan.

In February 2002, the Seattle-based Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition released a report and film titled "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia." The report described the conditions at toxic waste sites in Asia, sites often marked by open-air burning of these products and children picking through the chemicals in hopes of finding valuable metals such as gold to sell. Still, the U.S. government has failed to respond to the export of e-waste to developing countries, though all European nations have banned the practice.

Several companies, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard, have instituted recycling programs that keep usable technology in operation while ensuring broken items are disposed of properly. However, most other electronics manufacturers lag behind in addressing this problem. For a small additional charge -- possibly as little as $10 or $15 per $1,000 computer -- producers of these products could fund a recycling program to properly deal with high-tech appliances.

Last year I proposed legislation to tackle e-waste by using a commonly accepted policy known as "extended producer responsibility." It operates similar to the federal Superfund cleanup program by requiring producers to pay into an e-waste cleanup fund. House Bill 1942 would have banned dumping e-waste into landfills and discouraged this kind of export, in addition to holding manufacturers financially responsible for the environmentally sound collection, recycling and disposal of electronic waste.

Manufacturers would be required to arrange for convenient and free collection sites at electronics stores, municipal recycling centers, charities and repair shops. The method for financing and implementing this program would be left to manufacturers, allowing them to craft a cost-effective plan that best meets their needs. While initial costs would likely be passed on to consumers through a small increase in product prices, this approach would provide a strong incentive to invest in environmentally friendly design methods.

Unfortunately, my legislation died last session. But e-waste will not go away. As we look forward to the 2004 legislative session, it is time to start looking at ways to address this growing problem before it gets much worse.

Rep. Mike Cooper, D-Edmonds, represents the 21st District, including Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mukilteo.

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