Going Nationwide?

TWO MEMBERS OF THE U.S. House of Representatives are trying, once again, to create a national e-waste recycling system. In early January, Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., introduced the National Computer Recycling Act (H.R. 425).

The bill would direct the Washington-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to add a fee of up to $10 — to be paid by consumers — on the sales of new computers, monitors and other electronic devices designated by the EPA administrator. The monies would fund EPA grants to local governments, organizations and individuals to carry out computer recycling programs. Manufacturers and retailers that have their own computer recycling programs would be exempt from charging the fee.

If passed, the bill would also require the EPA to study e-waste and develop recommendations for addressing the growing disposal issue.

As technology improves, people are replacing and disposing of their old electronic devices in significant quantities. Roughly 2 million tons of e-waste make their way into landfills each year, according to the EPA. And some environmental groups worry that toxic substances in e-waste could harm human health and the environment. However, solid waste industry members note that there is no evidence that toxic substances leach from e-waste when it is placed in landfills.

Reps. Thompson and Slaughter acknowledged the environmental concerns in introducing the bill. However, the bill has died twice before when it was sent to the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2003 and 2002.

Nevertheless, Thompson has introduced the bill a third time because he believes there is more political momentum for e-waste legislation now, says Matt Gerien, Thompson's press secretary. “E-waste has gained a lot of notice lately in the press,” he says. “We feel like there's a lot more support for the bill right now.”

Chaz Miller, state programs director for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), is not so sure, and says the chances of the bill passing are “pretty slim.” “With all due respect to the [bill's] authors, they are members of the minority party, and they are not on the committee of jurisdiction,” Miller explains. “If a bill that is similar to this is picked up by a Republican on that committee, then it's going to be taken more seriously politically.” Also, “Congress, for better or worse, has other priorities right now, and they don't see a pressing need to engage this issue.”

NSWMA has yet to take a position on the bill and typically does not do so on legislation until hearings on it are held and debate begins, Miller says. However, the organization supports advance recycling fees or takeback programs to avoid unfunded e-waste recycling mandates, he says.

John Skinner, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., says his organization supports the bill's concept but has questions about how it would be put into practice. For example, SWANA wants to prevent a situation in which a consumer has paid the fee and then, because of how the funds were distributed geographically, does not have a local system that will take back the material. “We feel that needs to be explored further,” he says.