California's Computer Trash Cleanup to Cost U.S. $1 Billion

Sacramento Bee
June 21, 2001
California faces a mounting bill for handling toxic waste from obsolete
computer monitors that could total U.S. $1 billion by 2006, according to
a study released by a coalition of environmental groups.

The report, "Poison PCs and Toxic TVs," said lead and other dangerous metals in computer monitors and television screens must be dealt with as hazardous waste, an expensive proposition whose costs could fall on local governments and taxpayers.

Computer makers must take responsibility for the problem by phasing out toxic materials that are used in the manufacturing process and by encouraging and financing recycling efforts, said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a co-sponsor of the study.

The coalition, which also includes the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, The Materials of the Future Foundation and Green Capitol, said much of the recycling could be financed by a charge levied on computers when they are first purchased.

Such recycling fees already are imposed in California on the purchase of tires, motor oil and bottles, Murray said.

Lack of Agreement

John Hunter, a consultant to the American Electronics Association, which represents major computer makers, said the PC industry is eager to solve the problem but is wary of such advance payment plans.

"We want to be sure that whatever we come up with doesn't limit the options people have before them," he said.

He said the AEA, state and federal regulators, and environmental groups had all been discussing legislation to promote safe computer disposal but had not yet reached agreement.

According to the coalition, the scope of the disposal problem stems from the rapid obsolescence of computers, which now have a life span of less than three years, meaning 6,000 computers become obsolete in California every day.

Those that are not stored in garages or attics are sometimes dumped in the trash. Since each computer monitor contains up to 8 pounds of lead, monitors can pose a serious health hazard if the lead leaches into the soil.

Public officials are beginning to take note of the problem. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control recently declared the lead in computer monitors to be hazardous waste, which must be disposed according to state and federal hazardous waste guidelines.

That means that it's illegal to dispose of them other than at approved recycling or solid-waste facilities, said Peggy Harris, chief of the department's regulatory programs division.

Her office also is preparing to issue emergency regulations in July that would require the monitors to be handled in a manner consistent with their threat to health and the environment.

City Government Concern

Locally, Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway said he plans to propose shifting the financial burden of computer recycling from cities to the state.

Tretheway said experts have estimated a city the size of Sacramento would have to spend U.S. $5 million to U.S. $10 million over the next five years just to manage toxic waste from obsolete computers. "The financial burden is just too large for us," he said.

Statewide, recycling or safely destroying outdated computers would cost U.S. $25 million to $42 million a year, the coalition estimates. Throw in the obsolete machines now stored at homes and businesses, and the total could hit U.S. $1 billion over the next five years, the coalition said.

Some computer companies are taking initial steps toward recycling PCs. Hewlett-Packard Co. has established a recycling operation in Roseville that now accepts computers from the public. But shipping costs run between U.S. $30 and $50 to get computers to the site, which could discourage participation.

IBM has a similar program, but so far has taken in only about 1,000 PCs, compared with the 3 million units it sells each year in the United States, Murray said.

Murray said he's skeptical that such programs will make much of a dent, likening them to bottle recycling programs in which the customer would have to ship glass containers to a recycler via UPS or Federal Express.

Renee St. Denis, HP's environmental business unit manager, said HP's program is just an initial step and the company is meeting with groups to decide the next step.

(c) 2001 Sacramento Bee

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