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Paying to Junk TVs, Monitors

Legislation: Bills would have California collect money at the time of sale to cover disposal.


SACRAMENTO -- California would become the first state to impose a fee on the sales of computers and televisions to pay for their future disposal, under sweeping legislation aimed at managing hazardous electronic waste.

Beginning in 2004, the state would assess a fee of as much as $30 on the sale of every new computer and TV set to help cities and trash companies finance collection and recycling. The legislation also would require a warning label on every new computer and television to disclose the hazardous materials contained inside, and would establish a public education campaign to persuade consumers to recycle them.

Unknown to many consumers, TV sets and personal computers contain numerous toxic materials. Discarding the growing heaps of outdated models in an environmentally safe manner poses a challenge across the country.

Last year, California quietly prohibited landfills from accepting any more TVs or computer monitors, after concluding they constituted hazardous waste.

Most such items contain four to eight pounds of lead apiece. About 10,000 of them are discarded in the state every day and only an estimated 5% to 15% are recycled. Yet California, like all other states, lacks a strategy for getting rid of them.

Measures by state Sens. Byron Sher of Stanford and Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, both Democrats, would treat the discarded devices like used bottles, cans and tires.

"If you walk into Circuit City or Good Guys today, you are going to find the latest, fastest computer and you know, two or three years from now, it is going to be in the trash somewhere," Romero said. "We all want the newest technology. It's out with the old, in with the new. But until the new becomes environmentally friendly, we are ending up with a stockpile of hazardous waste."

Both measures have cleared the Senate and are in the Assembly, but they are opposed by an array of business interests, leaving their prospects for final passage uncertain.

This week, in fact, both measures nearly died in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, which passed the bills only after stripping them of most details and ordering opponents and supporters to reopen negotiations.

Several computer and television trade groups are working to defeat the bills (SB 1523 and SB 1619), arguing that the state should wait for a national electronics recycling standard. And some in-state manufacturers, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, worry that a California fee would give an edge to out-of-state competitors, such as Gateway and Dell, whose Internet sales might be outside the state's reach.

'A Fairness Issue'

"Consumers who purchase computers at retail outlets in California will pay this $30 fee, and consumers who choose to purchase their computers over the Internet will not," said Heather Bowman of the Electronics Industries Alliance, a Washington trade group active in the California fight.

"That's a fairness issue. California retailers are already at a disadvantage because of the sales tax [which is not charged on out-of-state Internet purchases], and this would only make it worse."

Supporters of a state recycling fee, although acknowledging that a national solution would make more sense, say California may have to act first, as it has done on other environmental issues.

They say it is time for computer makers to embrace what they believe is a moral obligation to ensure that the products they sell do not contribute to pollution.

The fee, supporters say, would nurture a growing computer recycling industry and end the technology world's dirty little secret about what happens to the detritus of the Information Age.

Much of America's electronic waste now makes its way to China, India and Pakistan, where computers and TV sets are crudely disassembled and scrapped for parts by untrained peasants, polluting ground water and endangering human health, environmentalists assert.

A recent documentary on the practice shot by environmental groups, "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia," showed Chinese villagers, including children, scavenging old computers with ID tags from the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The footage surprised Los Angeles school officials, who said they did not know how their computer junk had made it across the Pacific.

"This is an issue that should already have been addressed," said Sher, who represents much of the Silicon Valley area. "This is a problem that is giving this industry a black eye, not only here but throughout the world."

Since its inception, one of the central tenets of the computer industry has been that equipment will be replaced early and often as better technology becomes available.

The side effect of that constant turnover--piles upon piles of obsolete computers--is only now attracting government scrutiny.

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