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Davis Signs Law to Boost TV, Computer Monitor Recycling

The nation's most comprehensive law to solve the machines' toxic waste problem could add to the cost of new models next July.

September 26, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis signed the nation's most comprehensive law Thursday to speed recycling of discarded computer monitors and televisions, an estimated 6 million of which are stacked in California offices and homes waiting to be tossed.

The law aims to shrink that stockpile and detoxify future waste -- which cannot now be dumped in California landfills because that could endanger groundwater -- by imposing a fee on new products to pay for recycling, forcing manufacturers to stop using lead and mercury, and setting standards when computer monitors are dismantled in foreign countries.

Consumers can expect to pay $6 to $10 more when they buy new televisions and computer screens after next July 1 if manufacturers won't absorb the charge.

Heralded by some environmentalists, the new law is described by experts as the most far-reaching attempt to tackle electronic waste in the country. No other state imposes a fee on new computer monitors and televisions to pay for recycling, and no other state mandates that manufacturers match the European Union goal of eliminating lead, mercury and other toxics from computers and televisions sold by 2007.

The California law also stands alone in requiring that computer manufacturers who ship old equipment overseas for dismantling prove that the foreign recycling operation meets environmental protection standards set by an international organization.

With the electronics industry churning out faster and fancier computers and televisions, the pile-up of castoffs is a nationwide problem. More than 50 bills were introduced in 29 states this year to consider the problem, but none of the others goes so far as the legislation Davis signed Thursday. A national computer recycling bill introduced in March by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), which would impose a fee on new computer monitors to fund recycling, is before a House committee.

"California is pretty much on the forefront," said James Cox, who tracks legislation nationwide for Goodwill Industries International.

Davis signed SB 20, by Senator Byron Sher (D-Stanford), after last year vetoing a less comprehensive bill opposed by most of the electronics industry. The new law is in some ways more burdensome to the industry, but few manufacturers actively opposed it, other than Hewlett-Packard Co., which operates its own recycling program.

"What happened is that, from an early point this year, some of the companies ... woke up and realized that last year's bill is the approach that they wanted," Sher said.

The senator at first tried to fashion a two-track approach so manufacturers who recycled their own products could avoid the fee. But the majority of the industry preferred that government take charge of the recycling effort, Sher said.

The nonprofit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition had sought a different approach. Executive Director Ted Smith said it would have been better to require that each manufacturer be responsible for its own products, from assembly line to recycling pile.

Such a requirement, Smith said, would spur the industry to cut the use of toxics in its products.

Mark Murray, executive director of nonprofit Californians Against Waste, called the new law "great environmental policy" and "a critical first step."

He said the electronics industry could not agree on a bill that would make manufacturers responsible for a product from cradle to grave. "This was the best we could do," he said.

Products containing cathode ray tubes -- which convert an electronic signal into a visual image -- cannot legally be dumped in California landfills. Each CRT contains five to seven pounds of lead, which could leach into groundwater. Experts estimate that 10,000 such units become obsolete in California every day.

A lack of electronics recyclers has led to illegal dumping, such as the 10 tons of electronic waste that authorities found in a Long Beach vacant lot in May. Some obsolete equipment is shipped to developing countries, where haphazard dismantling can poison water and soil.

The new law requires manufacturers to pay the California Integrated Waste Management Board a fee of $6 to $10, depending on screen size, for every computer monitor and television sold. The board will use that money to pay recyclers so consumers can drop off obsolete equipment for free. The fee will be adjusted every two years to match disposal costs.

The new law gives hope to nonprofits, such as Goodwill Industries, which loses $25 to $30 on each donated computer that it takes to recyclers.

"We're keeping it out of the landfill, but it's costing us," said Doug Barr, president of Goodwill Southern California, which intends to expand its computer and television dismantling operation if it can tap into the money to be collected by the waste board.

When the price of computers fell a couple of years ago, it no longer became profitable for Goodwill to refurbish and sell the equipment. But people kept donating castoffs, until Goodwill Southern California had 1,300 pallets full of obsolete computers.

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