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This Law Does Not Compute
This Law Does Not Compute
June 19, 2005
Originally published in The Washington Post
Maryland's new law that taxes computer manufacturers to fund efforts to recycle "electronic waste" [Business, June 1] penalizes production, imposes a huge monetary burden on businesses, creates unintended environmental costs and benefits no one.
The law levies a $5,000 fee on manufacturers who have produced more than 1,000 desktop or laptop computers on average each year since 2002. But this fee, targeted at the disposal of unwanted computers, won't come close to covering the full costs of recycling e-waste. The International Association of Electronics Recyclers estimates recycling costs at $500 a ton, compared with $40 a ton to dump the e-waste in a landfill. With 60,000 tons of e-waste piling up in Maryland annually, according to state lawmakers, recycling will cost $30 million a year.
At this rate, the state will need 6,000 manufacturers paying the annual fee of $5,000 to break even. State officials so far have identified 200 companies that are covered by the new legislation.
But recycling that is poorly thought out can create unintended consequences. Consider, for example, the contributions to greenhouse gas emissions produced by the recycling and the transportation of e-waste during the collection and pre-recycling phases. These costs might be worthwhile if they promised a noticeable benefit. But lawmakers not only have failed to identify a benefit, they have yet to articulate a problem — other than 60,000 tons of electronics discarded every year.
It has been charged that personal computers contain toxic substances that seep out of landfills into our soil and drinking water. But we have no evidence of this. Glass in TV and computer monitors, it also has been claimed, contains concentrations of lead. But studies show that the lead and other trace amounts of heavy metals in computer displays are safely contained in landfills. After extensive study on the long-term behavior of e-waste in landfills, Timothy Townsend of the University of Florida concluded that "there is no compelling evidence" that e-waste poses a risk in landfills. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.
Nationally, the annual number of discarded home computers is expected to peak by the end of the year. That is because consumers tend to hold on to their outdated computers — recycling 75 percent of them to relatives and friends. This reduces the number of discards that end up in landfills. And while 60,000 tons of e-waste is not inconsequential, our landfills are capable of handling that annual amount for decades to come.
Further, manufacturers voluntarily are taking back and recycling or 'refurbishing used electronics, and they do it better and cheaper than the government. Last year, producers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and IBM recycled more than 160 million pounds of e-waste. Such private initiatives have the potential to grow -- but not if state governments burden them with unjustified costs and mandates.
The issue of properly disposing of electronic waste is crucial. We should demand that our lawmakers get it right.