TX Plan To Control E-Waste Could Be National Model

capitoltxAssociated Press
Matt Slagle

Texans buying new computer equipment often face a perplexing question — what should be done with the obsolete PCs they’ve just replaced? Often, old computer gear ends up collecting dust in an attic or garage because consumers don’t know what else to do. But the trash bin is a legal — if not environmentally friendly — option in Texas, too.

That so-called “e-waste” regularly ends up in landfills and can slowly leach toxic components — lead, mercury and other harmful materials — into the environment.

The United Nations Environmental Program estimates some 20 to 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated annually, and 85 percent of it ends up in landfills.

In Texas, a bill authored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and a companion bill in the House, would force companies that sell computer products in the state to offer free pickup and recycling programs for consumers.

“This is a big first step and a lot of work has gone into getting agreement from a variety of folks,” said Watson, a former Austin mayor. “This is a major step in environmental protection and will make a substantial difference.”

Seemingly everyone involved — environmental groups, lawmakers, large manufacturers including Round Rock-based Dell Inc., and industry organizations like the Texas Association of Business — support the bills. If passed, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would oversee a recycling plan requiring manufacturers who sell computer gear in Texas to label their equipment with pickup and recycling information.

Manufacturers and retailers that fail to comply with the rules would face fines of $10,000 for the first violation and $25,000 for each additional violation. The companies also would have to submit annual reports to the TCEQ detailing how much material they’ve recycled.

“The primary responsibility is on the producers and that’s where it belongs,” said Robin Schneider of the environmental group Texas Campaign for the Environment. “This is a huge step forward.”

The federal government has yet to pass any sort of national e-waste legislation, leaving states on their own. The resulting patchwork of rules means various states have devised different ways to deal with the issue.

In Maine, the first state to enact electronics recycling legislation, the government set up a program in which manufacturers must pay the state to have their products recycled. California, meanwhile, charges customers a small upfront fee when they purchase electronics. The money goes into a statewide fund used for computer recycling.

Texas’ plan differs in that individual companies, not the state, will bear the brunt of e-waste recycling responsibilities. It’s a welcome change from the rules in other states, said Tod Arbogast, director of sustainable business at Dell.

“We have looked in detail at the two bills and we think it is an absolutely unique approach that is a market innovation to drive efficiency,” he said. “We think that the Texas model has an opportunity to set an example.”

While she is pleased with the progress so far, Schneider said she would like to see more products covered in the recycling law. The proposed bills only cover desktop PCs, notebooks and computer monitors. Other device including televisions, personal digital assistants and cell phones aren’t covered.

Schneider said televisions in particular could become a major recycling issue in February 2009, when full-power TV stations are under a federal mandate to switch from analog to digital broadcasts. Consumers will still be able to receive digital broadcasts on their old sets if they are connected to cable or satellite service, or add a box to convert the digital signal to an analog format. But the switch is expected to inspire many consumers to buy new digital television sets, potentially sending millions of older models to landfills unless recycling options are in place.

“The bigger question I think is how are we going to get electronics makers to design products with less toxins in the first place?” she said. “We have to deal with the beginning of the process.”

While he expressed some privacy concerns about the personal data still saved on his aging laptop and desktop computer, Dallas resident Bryon Richardson said the law sounds like a good idea. He’s had the desktop hanging around in his home office since 1993.

“I would take that in a heartbeat,” said Richardson, 38. “Right now I just move it from one corner to the other when I clean. I really don’t want to just throw it in the garbage.”