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Thursday, February 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Makers of electronics may be held accountable for products' disposal

Seattle Times Olympia Bureau

OLYMPIA — Manufacturers of computers and other electronic devices such as televisions and cellphones would be held responsible for the collection, recycling and disposal of their discarded products under legislation introduced in the House this week.

In response to concerns that electronic waste is piling up in the state, House Bill 1942 is aimed at helping consumers know how and where to dispose of such devices as well as help save the environment from lead, mercury and other toxic elements. It also would phase out disposal of electronic waste in incinerators and landfills starting in January 2007.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Cooper, D-Edmonds, says Washington is one of about two dozen states to introduce such legislation.

Unwanted computers are often dumped into landfills where they pose health risks to the environment. Computer monitors with cathode ray tubes — the picture tube — can contain three to eight pounds of lead. Circuit boards also contain lead, mercury, cadmium and other hazardous materials.

But more often, old computers are just stockpiled in basements and closets, said Suellen Mele, board member of Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation. "People want to do something with these items, but they just don't know what to do," she said. "We need better collection programs. ... That's what this bill is about."

On the state level, hazardous electronic waste is regulated — in general — only if it weighs more than 220 pounds. And most of that is from large businesses, according to Chipper Hervieux, environmental specialist for the state's Department of Ecology. Counties and other jurisdictions, however, do regulate their landfills.

King County's Solid Waste Division doesn't generally accept computer monitors from commercial customers. For consumers, the county has set up the Computer Recovery Project to tell county residents where they can drop off their discarded PCs. Working computers are often repaired and resold or donated to charities. Unusable computers are taken apart and recycled.

In an attempt to avoid dumping the material into landfills, Snohomish County recently did a one-time cleanup program to rid local schools of broken electronics. That resulted in the collection of 135 tons of material, at a cost of $55,000 to local taxpayers, Mele said.

Under the proposed bill, computer and electronic manufacturers would be allowed to include the cost of disposal or recycling of their products into the sale price. That way, the burden of payment would go to the person who actually uses the product, as opposed to taxpayers in general, Mele said.

She says the legislation also would be a financial incentive for electronics manufacturers to make more environmentally safe, easily dismantled products by making them responsible for arranging recycling or disposal.

The bill also has language that encourages manufacturers to prohibit the export of hazardous electronic waste to foreign countries, but Sarah Westervelt, toxics researcher for Basel Action Network, said the bill's language in that area is weak. She says the United States is one of only a few developed countries that doesn't make it illegal to export such materials from wealthy to poor countries. The lack of federal legislation to address this has led states to pick up efforts to deal with this issue.

Charles Brown, Olympia business lobbyist, said the proposed solution — making manufacturers responsible for the collection and recycling or disposal of their product — is too simplistic.

He says it's difficult to track products such as computers that might be handed down to others or sold. That means the registered owner of the product may no longer own it at the end of its life.

Sarah Lorenzini: 360-943-9882 or slorenzini@seattletimes.com

INFORMATION

In King County

For information on where to dispose of your electronic material in King County, go to the Computer Recovery Project Web site at dnr.metrokc.gov/ swd/default.shtml or call 206-296-8800.

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