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Georgetown takes on tech trash: City is first to vote on resolution urging new electronics recycling rules

June 22, 2006

computerrecycleAustin American-Statesman
Francisco Vara-Orta

Consumers aren’t the only ones frustrated about what to do with obsolete and broken electronic equipment such as televisions or computers. A surging international debate over electronic waste, or e-waste, has cities such as Georgetown plugging into residents’ concern over consumers and businesses tossing old equipment in the trash, possibly leading to contamination from the electronics’ internal toxic chemicals.

Last week, the Georgetown City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution calling for the Texas Legislature to require vendors and companies who provide electronic products to city and state governments to take the equipment back after it is discarded. Currently, each entity must figure out what to do with its obsolete electronics.

Georgetown became the first city in Texas to vote on an electronic waste resolution, but city officials said it’s more of a political statement that bears no legal consequences. The council acted after receiving about 200 letters and a petition with about 800 signatures in favor of the resolution.

“We’re trying to send the message to other city and state governments that e-waste is a fast-growing problem and the technology industry needs to be encouraged to make more environmentally sound products,” said Patty Eason, a Georgetown council member.

The effort is being led by the Texas Campaign for the Environment, an Austin-based advocacy group that is trying to line up similar resolutions in Plano and Dallas, with eyes on the 2007 Legislature.

Executive Director Robin Schneider said a recent study by her group found that Central Texas cities would spend an estimated $41 million through 2015 on electronic waste if there is no requirement for companies or vendors to handle the recycling.

“E-waste is the fastest-growing municipal waste stream in the United States,” Schneider said.

She praised Georgetown, saying the city “took a step in the right direction of what’s going to be a very long path to comprehensive national e-waste legislation.”

Eason said Georgetown’s resolution is part of a broader goal to get federal laws written to create a uniform policy for manufacturers to handle more electronic waste.

“Citizens and cities are having to deal with the problem, and it’s only going to get worse,” Eason said.

Southwestern University’s Laura Hobgood-Oster, who chairs the school’s environmental studies program, sent the council a letter supporting the resolution.

“It’s like we have some kind of cultural blind spot when it comes to the dangers of electronic waste,” Hobgood-Oster said. “Technology has been so fast-paced in the last century that I don’t think we’ve realized yet what we’re going to do with all that obsolete equipment.”

Approximately 62 percent of U.S. households had computers in 2003, compared with only 37 percent in 1997, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. About 70 million computers became obsolete in 2003, and only 7 million of those were recycled, according to a report by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit, nongovernmental public health advocacy agency.

When it comes time to get rid of old equipment, residents’ options are limited.

Federal rules allow only 220 pounds of hazardous waste each month in landfills, the equivalent of two or three TVs. Some companies, such as Dell Inc., do have programs to recycle outdated equipment. People can also sell obsolete items to for-profit businesses that recycle parts. Another option is to donate equipment to nonprofits or thrift stores.

Georgetown resident Leona Resteiner said she donates her outdated equipment to nonprofit groups, or, if the equipment is broken, waits for the city’s hazardous waste collection day in November.

Most large electronics such as computers and TVs are prohibited from regular trash pickups in Georgetown because of the federal dumping guidelines and the city’s current incapacity for recycling high volumes of e-waste. However, Georgetown’s revamped recycling facility, opening this year, will have a dropoff point for electronics.

“We should have more options; the ones available are too far and few in between,” Resteiner said. “I think that discourages proper disposal of e-waste, but this is an important issue that can affect the health of our children and grandchildren for generations.”


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