From cellphones to iPods, from PDAs to PCs, Americans love the latest gadget. Yet this profusion of innovation also creates a problem: obsolete electronic devices, many with toxic parts, are stacking up in closets and basements, and eventually end up in a dump. In all, Americans own about 2 billion electronic gizmos, or 25 per household.
This "e-waste" is only about 2 percent by weight of the nation's municipal solid-waste stream, yet it is one of the fastest growing segments. It's especially troublesome because circuit boards, cathode ray tubes, and flat-panel displays contain toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, or lead that are considered harmful if they leach into local groundwater.
Each year, some 50 million computers and 20 million televisions become obsolete, according to a recent Government Accountability Office study. But only about 10 percent of e-waste is recycled, the rest is landfilled, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
And as consumers throw out their conventional TV sets for digital high-definition television, the worry is that these old TVs will put billions of pounds of lead into the environment.
At least 25 states are considering bills that would regulate e-waste. Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, and Maine already ban e-waste from landfills, boosting recycling in those states. But as more states set up rules, consumer electronics manufacturers are pushing for a national program to avoid the costs of complying with differing state laws. The industry also wants "shared responsibility among all the stakeholders" to avoid being held solely responsible for the toxic parts it sells in its wares. One example is a California fee on retail sales of such electronic items - something retailers oppose - that helps pay for recycling.
Congress is now weighing two different types of bills, each aimed at creating a national plan for e-waste recycling. Last month, a Senate committee held hearings on a bill that would ladle out tax incentives to companies and individuals who recycle in order to jump-start a free-market approach. A House bill would set up a "grant and fee" program run by the EPA, a more bureaucratic approach.
It's highly uncertain if either approach would fix the problem. Letting states experiment to produce the best model is a better route to follow. Creating a Washington-run recycling program, with its expected beholden special interests, is something to approach with great caution.
Since recycling electronics is very labor intensive, it's not likely to pay for itself in the US, where labor costs are high. Still, some metals in computers are valuable enough that some recyclers ship container-loads of e-waste to nations like China where villagers are paid to take them apart - usually without protective clothing or environmental safeguards. That's not a practice the US should encourage.
Several pilot programs have shown that US consumers want to recycle if it's convenient and inexpensive. And computermakers Dell and Hewlett Packard now offer "end-of-life" return programs for many of their products. That kind of "extended producer responsibility" is an idea being weighed by eight states. It would require manufacturers to provide "cradle-to-grave" caring for their electronics (even once they're defunct).
Pioneered in Europe, this logical concept has taken root in Maine, which requires manufacturers to deal with mercury in their worn-out products. These kinds of regulations also push the industry to produce fewer or no toxins, and design products that are easier and less expensive to recycle.
The states, however, need to coordinate such programs to avoid creating a patchwork of standards for the industry. Washington should bring the states together to share ideas.
A couple more ideas are worth considering: What about requiring that gadgets with toxic parts come with very large labels indicating what's inside? And how about requiring that all advertising for such products also carry these warnings? That might help push consumers to recycle their old products, and create market pressure for nontoxic gadgets.
Producer responsibility along with state-led recycling plans for any residual e-waste is the best path for now to solve this fast-growing problem.