Straight Scoop on E-waste

Members of the congressional e-waste working group — Reps. Mike Thompson, Louise Slaughter, Randy Duke Cunningham and Mary Bono — in their letter to the editor ("Electronic waste," July 15) responding to my commentary ("E-waste: Electronic paperweight crisis?," July 12), still miss the point. No one disputes the obvious: Yes, consumers want the latest in technology and e-waste is a fast-growing part of municipal waste. But Mr. Thompson, et al. fail to properly identify their so called "crisis."

The authors say e-waste is the fastest-growing segment of the waste stream but fail to mention it still is only a tiny amount — 1½ percent — of our total municipal waste. Moreover, they don’t mention the number of obsolete computers is expected to level off after this year.

The authors say the Environmental Protection Agency found "70 percent of the heavy metals in municipal landfills come from improperly discarded electronics." Untrue. EPA does report 70 percent of landfill heavy metals comes from e-waste.

But EPA is not claiming these metals are "improperly" discarded or that they leak out of the landfill. The authors inaccurately assume a link between the two.

Landfills are heavily regulated and equipped to handle large quantities of heavy metals. There is absolutely no evidence heavy metals from e-waste leak from landfills or represent a health or environmental threat.

In fact, EPA, which Mr. Thompson and colleagues cite as their expert source, clearly says in the response to the Office of Inspector General’s Evaluation Report: "Regardless of how much e-waste that may exhibit a hazardous characteristic finds its way into municipal landfills, EPA does not believe that this will pose an environmental risk." And: "Several studies over the years have shown that leachate from municipal landfills for most metals is at levels below the drinking water standards."

Similarly, Mr. Thompson last month testified in Congress that, when glass from a computer monitor "is crushed in a landfill, the lead is released into the environment." For shame.

As founder of the e-waste working group, it is critical he — and his colleagues — get the facts straight. To say this waste enters a landfill, even if the glass is shattered, does not mean lead is released into the environment.

The members write that "Ms. Gattuso and the Competitive Enterprise Institute should contact us to discuss their ideas for reducing e-waste." We would love to. That is why two months ago we called Rep. Randy Cunningham’s office several times to ask for a meeting. Unfortunately, no calls were ever returned.

Let me be clear. CEI and I welcome a working group spearheaded by members of Congress. But rather than start from the premise a problem exists because special-interest groups say so, it would be intellectually more honest to start by asking if there is a problem. 

My hunch is the members of Congress will learn there is. A handful of states — those the members represent — have rushed to enact extremely costly e-waste recycling legislation. These members of Congress know, unless federal legislation is enacted that imposes these costs across the board, their states will suffer a severe competitive disadvantage.