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Haste maketh waste, and in the fast- paced world of technology, there's a lot of it. In <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />California, home of the technology revolution, 10,000 home computers and TVs are retired daily. While that amounts to a tiny fraction of the state's total waste stream, the issue is creating heaps of hype and hysteria about what to do with the growing amount of electronic waste or "e-waste." <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
This year, California became the first state to hold consumers responsible for their e-mess. Californians buying a TV, home computer, or laptop must now pay $6 to $10 to finance a costly program to collect and recycle all used machines throughout the state.
While the fee may seem insignificant, there is little reason to believe it will remain low for long; the cost to recycle a single computer is six times that amount. Advocacy groups such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, who have been aggressively lobbying the state and Congress for mandatory recycling laws, already are arguing the fee does not go far enough. They would like to see the fee raised to $60 per product to cover the full costs of recycling.
California's new law also requires manufacturers to rethink the way they build computers. By 2007, they must phase out lead—currently used in computers to protect users from the tube's X-rays—mercury, cadmium, and other substances crucial to the operation of PCs.
The widespread panic is based on misinformation spread largely by powerful eco-activist groups who believe the growing amount of electronic waste reflects the ills of a "throwaway" society and that recycling e-waste is our moral obligation to achieve "zero waste tolerance." Among the myths bandied about are that e-waste is growing at an uncontrollable, "exponential" rate; and that heavy metals contained in computers are leaking out of the landfills, poisoning our ground soil.
In reality, e-waste has remained at only 1 percent of the total municipal waste stream since the U.S. EPA began calculating electronics discards in 1999. Furthermore, the annual number of obsolete home computers is expected to level off at 63 million this year and will then begin to decline. While that still sounds like a lot of computers, it's not an unmanageable amount. Our landfills are fully equipped to handle all our waste—e-waste included.
Nor is there any scientific evidence that e-waste in landfills presents a health risk. Landfills are built today with thick, puncture-resistant liners that keep waste from coming into contact with soil and groundwater. Timothy Townsend of the University of Florida, a leading expert on the effects of electronic waste in landfills, conducted tests in 2003 on 11 municipal landfills containing e-waste from TV and computer monitors, along with other solid waste. He and his associate Yong-Chul Jang found concentrations of lead far below the safety standard and less than 1 percent of what EPA's lab tests had predicted. "There is no compelling evidence," according to Townsend, that e-waste buried in municipal landfills presents a health risk.
Similarly, a yearlong, peer-reviewed study released last March by the SolidWaste Association of North America concluded "extensive data show that heavy metal concentrations in leachate and landfill gas are generally far below the limits established to protect human health and the environment."
The real problem is for state lawmakers who, based on misplaced fears, banned TVs and PCs from municipal landfills in 2001 and now don't know where to put the mounting discards. But mandated recycling is not the answer. The costs, ultimately passed on to consumers in the form of taxes and higher purchase prices, are staggering—$500 a ton of e-waste to recycle versus $40 a ton to landfill.
Furthermore, bans on the use of lead, mercury, cadmium and flame retardants, as required under California's new law by 2007, will unleash a host of unintended health and environmental risks. For example, there are no realistic alternatives to lead, crucial in the production of display monitors to protect users and also used in solders to attach metal components to printed circuit boards. Substitutes have been widely tested but none has proved to be as efficient or reliable.
Nor are tin-silver-copper combinations, the leading substitute, likely to pass muster in the Golden State since they are also heavily regulated under California's stringent environmental laws. Other known substitute metals fail to provide a strong enough solder joint and, according to the Journal of Electronic Materials, are considered a "potential reliability concern."
There is some good news. Increasingly, manufacturers are moving on their own to recycle their products, and they're doing it better and cheaper than government. Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Gateway and IBM are just a few of the many manufacturers operating their own recovery programs, recycling over 160 million pounds of e-waste a year. Equally as promising is e-Bay's new "Rethink Initiative" to provide online guidance and tools to consumers on recycling, donating, or even selling their used machines.
How to make these efforts even more successful? Keep government's nose out of the e-garbage.