The Pit and the Pentium

As concern grows about keeping obsolete computers and TVs out of landfills, two distinct models are emerging for how states can deal with electronic waste.
by | September 2004

At the northeastern tip of the United States, Aroostook County, Maine, is known for its vast forests, pristine lakes and abundant wildlife. Despite the remote location (or perhaps because of it), the county's 80,000 residents, like Americans everywhere, are bent on acquiring ever-faster computers and bigger-screen televisions.

As a result, officials in Aroostook County, along with their counterparts in states and municipalities all over the country, are faced with a growing environmental menace. U.S. households are buying 45 million new computers and 30 million TVs a year to replace broken or outmoded models. The problem is old TVs and monitors have cathode ray tubes full of lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and zinc. Unless they're disposed of carefully, those heavy metals can cumulatively imperil the air and water.

To prevent contamination, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, California and a number of other states have banned the disposal of hazardous tubes in landfills. Federal and state hazardous waste laws already compel business to recycle office computers and other electronics, but nobody really knows how many old TV sets and computer monitors homeowners are poised to dump. In Aroostook County, "people are probably saving a lot of stuff they've put away in their garages or attics or whatever," says Mark Draper, solid waste director for the Tri-Community Landfill operated by 33 cities and communities. "Others take them out on the back roads and throw them in the woods; we do know that happens."

Two years ago, the landfill's managers began collecting TVs and monitors at a central site in Fort Fairchild, Maine. Whenever a truckload accumulates, a hazardous waste handling firm ships them off to a Massachusetts electronics recycling facility. In just the first year, the program brought in 435 TVs and 423 computer monitors. To cover its disposal costs, the landfill charges residents $14 to drop off a monitor and $24 for a television set with a screen bigger than 25 inches.

But Draper acknowledges that many owners don't want to pay that much, so they're instead just holding on to old equipment. To make a truly substantial dent in the backlog, government waste managers say computer and television manufacturers need to take responsibility, one way or another, for retrieving dangerous electronic components when consumers are ready to discard them.

In April, the Maine Legislature approved an unprecedented state law that holds the electronics industry accountable for recycling the cathode ray tubes that local agencies collect. California, meanwhile, is getting ready to implement 2003 legislation that will charge a $6 to $10 recycling fee on every new computer and TV that consumers in the Golden State purchase. But even as other states consider following their lead, computer and TV makers are lobbying fiercely over whether the Maine or the California model will work best in getting all those cumbersome but fragile units back from millions of homes for safe disposal.

Dell and HP, the nation's two largest personal computer producers, favor Maine's "take-back" mandate requiring corporations to assume "product stewardship" and help cover the costs of retrieving their wares. But IBM, Apple Computer and home electronics giants such as Panasonic, Sony, Philips and RCA contend that levying California's "advanced recovery fee" and using the revenues to fund local recycling programs will be easier to enforce and more fair to TV manufacturers. Both states are still figuring out how to put the different approaches into practice, and their success or failure could set a national model for how governments pursue what National Recycling Coalition Director Kate Krebs refers to as "reverse logistics"--managing environmentally troublesome products at the end of their useful lives.

The electronics industry has been negotiating for more than two years, so far without success, to settle their differences in discussions with recycling advocates and government agencies. Last fall, the California Legislature plunged ahead by passing a measure that requires the state's 70,000 electronic retail stores to collect recovery fees when customers buy new TVs or computers. The law sets the fee at $6 for a device with a 14-inch screen, $8 for screens of 15 inches or more, and $10 for those larger than 35 inches. The California Integrated Waste Management Board will divvy up estimated revenues of $50 million a year to support state and local recycling infrastructure. California communities now pay between $20 and $25 to recycle a single computer or television, "but we expect the cost to go down quite rapidly as the program kicks in," says Michael Paparian, a former Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento who now serves on the waste board.

The law directed retailers to start charging the fee on July 1, 2004, but the legislature has delayed the effective date to November 1 as the state sales tax board struggles to figure out how to assess it. Meanwhile, some national recycling advocates contend that California's fee lets manufacturers off the hook and gives owners little reason to go to the trouble of turning in used equipment at recycling centers. "To make fee programs work right, you have to have an incentive on the back end to get people to bring their computers in," suggests Margaret Wall, a Resources for the Future economist in Washington, D.C. "All they're doing is raising a pot of money."


Meanwhile, Dell and HP, which vie fiercely for new computer sales, this summer competed for customers by offering free and convenient recycling services for old computer hardware. Both companies want California to exempt them from the pending fee, contending that a government-managed program will stifle creative disposal solutions they're designing. California's delay in levying the fee "speaks volumes about the administrative and bureaucratic problems with implementing a fee-based approach," says David Isaacs, HP's government and public policy director. "It's really just a tax that funds a government program but fails to provide manufacturers with incentives to innovate on recycling and better design."

When Maine took up computer recycling, on the other hand, Dell and HP lobbied successfully for modeling the program on product take-back laws enforced by Japan, Germany and other European governments. Maine's local governments remain responsible for collecting used computers and TVs, but beginning in 2006, the state will hold manufacturers responsible for consolidating scrap units with their brand names, shipping them to recycling plants and disposing of them safely. With that arrangement, "we don't have a state environmental bureaucracy running a waste operation, but we want some responsibility carried by the manufacturers," says Jon Hinck, the director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental organization that pushed for electronics recycling measures. "Having gone second, the feeling here is that we may have improved on what was done in California."

Environmentalists in California, and other big electronics makers, see things the opposite way. While a household typically buys a new computer every three years, most hang on to the same television for 10 or 15 years. Big consumer electronics manufacturers say forcing them to assume take-back requirements on sets they sold a decade ago will saddle them with higher expenses than upstart TV makers just entering U.S. markets. "I'll tell you I'm very nervous" about complying with Maine's requirement, says David Thompson, the director of Panasonic's U.S. environmental program. "We're concerned that companies that make a good-faith effort will be at a competitive disadvantage."

Maine's initial proposal, drafted by a stakeholders' group, took account of those concerns by treating televisions and computers separately for six years. It levied an advanced recovery fee on new television sales until 2012, then applied the product-stewardship standard to TVs as well as monitors. But by some estimates, Maine would have to set the charge at $28 a unit to cover collection costs; so the Legislature dropped the fee, in part because retail stores in southern Maine feared that they'd lose business to competitors just across the New Hampshire state line who wouldn't be charging a similar recycling levy. "What we ended up with is the most free-market approach to minimizing the environmental impact," says Maine Senator Tom Sawyer, a former landfill operator who took the lead in killing the TV fee. "Our decision was to say what we want the outcome to be and let the manufacturers decide the bulk of the details."


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