Congress to Explore National E-Waste Standard

This holiday season, many people will replace their old media gadgets with Christmas gifts like HDTVs, iPods, and digital video recorders, often consigning the old TV sets, CD players, and VCRs to the junk pile. Congress is considering how to make sure that this "e-waste" is recycled rather than thrown in the garbage.

Representatives of manufacturers, consumers, and recyclers are advising Congress on legislation that would create a national standard for disposal of e-waste. Earlier this year, a group of congressional representatives formed the E-Waste Working Group to target the growing problem.

"It's tough to figure out a plan that would work for all parties," says a spokesperson for Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who is a member of the group.

Up-Front Payment Considered

An option that Slaughter endorses would call for a front-end user fee to be added to the price of electronic devices, to pay for their proper disposal. This advance-recycling-fee idea is similar to a state law in effect in California that requires consumers to pay money up front to aid in the disposal of electronics.

"We feel that [an advance recycling fee] is the best way to ensure a consistency for consumers, the government, and manufacturing," says Kristi Taylor of the Consumer Electronics Association, a group that represents manufacturers and sellers of electronics. "There's kind of an ad hoc approach at the state level, and a few different approaches are getting passed via legislation, each differing in their own way, which makes it tricky for the industry."

Take-Back Model Endorsed by Some

But some corporations, such as Hewlett-Packard, say that a more efficient business model would be to allow consumers to take back old products to the manufacturer.

"Our experience suggests that there's a better likelihood of keeping costs low in a producer-run system than [there is] adding taxes and funding government programs," says David Isaacs of HP. "We are advocating a system that has some flexibility built into it so [that] people who believe they can [recycle] faster, cheaper, and with greater innovation can do so."

This so-called take-back model has some support in the Senate. Last July, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jim Talent (R-MO) introduced Senate Bill 510, the Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act, which would, according to Wyden, "create the first-ever nationwide e-waste recycling infrastructure." That bill has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

Congress to Recycle Own E-Waste

Before Congress acts on the issue, it also plans to clean up its own e-mess. Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA) last month proposed a bill aimed at coordinating efforts for both houses of Congress to standardize the way they dispose of electronics.

"Each year Americans dispose of 2 million tons of electronics, which contain harmful chemicals such as lead and mercury," Thompson said in a release. "Before we can enact a national plan, Congress needs its own plan to properly dispose of its own e-waste. This is an opportunity for Congress to lead by example."

Both Thompson's bill and a proposal to cut e-waste are expected to be taken up by the House sometime early next year.

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