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Delete Key for Screen Savers

August 28, 2003

How many Californians keep an old television set or computer monitor stashed in the garage, a closet or a back room? Millions, because so few can figure out just how to get rid of the stuff. Worse than storing that electronic mess, many have hidden a machine in the bottom of the trash barrel or cloaked it in a large garbage bag headed for the landfill. That's illegal, of course.

So what to do?

The problem is that cathode ray tubes contain hazardous materials, including cadmium, mercury and, most of all, lead; each old-fashioned monitor or TV screen contains two to five pounds of lead. And 2 million to 5 million computer monitors and televisions are taken out of service in California each year.

The only way to dispose of these devices legally is to get a hazardous-waste permit for them, then get them to a special dump that takes such materials. Some urban areas, including Los Angeles, have special days and locations for disposal of e-waste and other hazardous materials. But in other places such a system is impractical or impossible for homeowners.

Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) won passage of a bill last year to establish a computer and TV pickup and recycling program, financed by a fee paid by the customer at the store -- much like the bottle recycling program. Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the measure, saying the state needed it but that manufacturers too should bear some of the burden.

Sher has a new bill, SB 20, that meets that condition. The Senate-passed measure is now the subject of final negotiations with electronics manufacturers to work out a program acceptable to them. A make-or-break vote on the bill is expected today in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The plan calls for a reasonable, affordable consumer fee of $8 to $12, depending on screen size. Manufacturers are required to phase out hazardous materials as they develop new models, following a pattern being set in the European Union. The program would take effect in 2007 or later. Although use of hazardous matter will decline over the years, the recycling of the screens' glass, plastic and metal parts would continue.

The program outlined by Sher would alleviate a massive toxic headache for the state. And consider how much storage space it would free up in homes, making room for more unread college texts, abandoned exercise machines and other junk that just might come in handy some day.

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