LEGISLATION: Terminating Video Monitor Dumping

Will consumer electronics manufacturers start taking back computers, fax machines and stereo equipment or providing other nondisposal outlets for used goods?

Here in the United States, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has fired the opening salvo in the battle to block video monitor disposal. Because of potentially toxic substances in devices such as computer screens or televisions, state environmental authorities have found that landfilling and incinerating these items poses health risks.

The endless consumer search for higher quality images and other performance upgrades is creating a steady stream of old televisions and monitors to landfills and incinerators, which concerns Massachusetts officials.

Massachusetts residents currently dump 75,000 tons of electronic equipment into landfills and incinerators, according to state estimates. This volume is expected to grow fourfold by 2005 if no action is taken.

"We're trying to get this program in place before the future tidal wave of electronics hits," says Robin Ingenthron, who works as a strategic planner for the Department of Environmental Protection, Boston.

As an alternative, state officials have set up six collection centers that will accept cathode ray tubes for recycling. Additionally, the Department of Environmental Protection has promised financial assistance to approximately 113 local governments to recycle these items.

Typically, a cathode ray tube contains up to eight pounds of lead, which, if released, could create a substantial threat to human health and the environment, state regulators say. Safe recycling is possible, however, if the picture tube stays intact, they add.

The potential ban may prompt residents to recycle other computer residues as well. For example, toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury are present in circuit boards and batteries. These substances, if landfilled or burned, eventually could be released into groundwater or the air.

Meantime, the European Commission (EC) is addressing electronic waste with a mandatory take-back proposal for consumer electronic goods.

In development for five years, the controversial proposal was scheduled for implementation before this summer. The proposal also would ban the use of certain chemicals in electronic and electrical goods sold in European Union (EU) countries. In particular, the measure takes aim at cadmium in batteries.

"The most difficult issue we are dealing with now is what chemicals will be outlawed and how long the transition periods will be" before industry can no longer use the substances, according to a spokesperson for EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom.

"Some member states ... have agreed to hold back from approving their own national legislation in anticipation of an EU initiative," Wallstrom adds. "So there is an urgency about this."

Throughout the proposal's development, the consumer electronics industry has strongly resisted any mandatory take-back element. Perhaps as a result, the EC plans to give member states some flexibility on this matter.

"It will be up to them to determine how the collection of waste will be organized and whether it will be done by public or private entities," says a representative for the Environmental Commissioner.

An industry trade group has criticized the proposal for failing to consider the significance of Ecommerce. "Retailers and manufacturers that distribute products by selling over the Internet or other remote media are not addressed by the current draft proposal," the group said in its position paper published early this year. Among other points, the paper noted the "substantial problem of 'free riders,' which cannot be addressed by any national legislation" that converts the EU directive into local law.

"[N]ew products can be brought onto the market anywhere and shipped to any EU-member state without restrictions. [But only] the manufacturers and importers resident in the country where this product will become waste [will pay the waste recovery costs]," the paper states.