High-tech junk on lawmakers’ agenda

technocycleescrapmapHouston Chronicle
Dina Cappiello

In Texas, throwaway technology could become a thing of the past. New legislation would make it illegal to toss a Dell into a Dumpster or incinerate an IBM. Even outdated cellular phones and Sony PlayStations couldn’t be trashed.

Identical bills filed in the House and Senate would add computers, flat-screen TVs and other discarded technological junk to the list of household hazardous wastes — and require the companies that produce the equipment to pay for its recycling.

As many as 25 other states are considering similar legislation to recycle the growing glut of high-tech garbage created each time technophiles swap VCRs for DVDs, date books for personal digital assistants, and old computers for faster, flatter models. Of concern — the toxic lead, cadmium and arsenic that lurk in computer monitors and other high-tech parts, which can leak when they go to a landfill or sit curbside.

Massachusetts and California already ban computers from landfills. In Europe, the push is on producers to create more eco-friendly and recyclable PCs.

“It’s an impending problem, and right now there is no plan for disposing and recycling these things. The bill that was filed is a starting point,” said Graham Keever, general counsel for Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, who introduced Senate Bill 1239 last week.

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, is carrying identical House Bill 2967.

The National Safety Council estimates that by next year there will be 315 million obsolete computers in the United States, many of them destined for landfills, incinerators or for export as hazardous waste. In Texas, state environmental officials say more than 1.5 million computers are discarded each year, and only 162,000 are recycled. Most computers — 75 percent — are stored in attics, basements and closets, according to estimates.

The bill before the Legislature would require companies to submit plans to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality outlining how they will recycle their equipment. The legislation also prevents companies from using prisons, or exporting the waste to other countries, where underpaid and untrained workers can be exposed to the hazardous parts. Electronics would also have to carry labels stating the hazards and proper disposal techniques.

“This bill … will defuse a growing toxic waste program by finally giving consumers a convenient way to recycle computers and TVs,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Industry representatives say that Texas’ legislation, backed strongly by pro-recycling environmental groups, is among the most progressive of the bills pending nationwide. The industry would prefer federal legislation to avoid having to comply with different recycling laws in each state.

“It is one of the more restrictive proposals we have seen this year,” said Heather Bowman, director of environmental affairs for the Electronic Industries Alliance, a trade group of 2,500 companies, which includes Hewlett-Packard and Austin-based Dell. Bowman called the Texas legislation “unworkable,” and an attempt to offload the cost of recycling onto industries.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Congress by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California, would place a $10 fee on computers with cathode ray tubes to fund national recycling efforts.

Bowman said the materials in electronics are used for a purpose. The Texas bill would require that products sold in the state not contain lead and hazardous parts, unless it is infeasible to use other materials.

“We can’t make products of sugar, spice and everything nice,” she said. “We are putting these materials in because they provide a function.”

While techno-trash makes up only about 1 percent of solid waste in the country, computers account for about 40 percent of the lead detected in the liquid collected at landfills, where it can potentially escape into the environment and drinking water, state environmental officials said. The average home computer contains between 4 to 8 pounds of lead.

“Landfills are not perfect vessels. We cannot expect them to be totally effective at retaining contents in the indefinite future,” said Alan Watts, the TCEQ’s recycling outreach coordinator.

The bill builds on electronic recycling efforts already under way in Texas, Watts said. Companies across the state recycle computer parts and donate them to schools and other organizations for reuse. Many municipalities collect computers on household hazardous waste collection days. And since October 2001, the city of Houston — using $30,000 a year collected from environmental penalties — has recycled electronics.

In the two years since the program began, the city has collected 21,900 pounds of computer processing units, 58,851 pounds of monitors, 22,325 pounds of TVs, and 71,499 pounds of toasters, phones and other miscellaneous equipment.

Companies like Dell and IBM also have recycling programs.

Just this week, Dell bolstered its recycling efforts, offering residents curbside pick-up of any make of computer for $15. Previously, customers had to pay to ship computers to recycling centers. Pat Nathan, vice president of corporate social responsibility for Dell, said the company would prefer solutions to the recycling problem that spread out the responsibility, and bolster the understanding of the problem.

“There is not doubt that there are computers that could be recycled and going to the landfill. There are computers sitting around the house,” Nathan said. “As the Texas Legislature reviews this, we are very open to talking and working with them.”