California imposes CRT recycling fee

SAN FRANCISCO (09/26/2003) - Californians will soon start paying some of the recycling costs for monitors and TVs up front.

The state's e-Waste Collection and Recycling Act, signed by Governor Gray Davis on Thursday, requires retailers to add a disposal fee to CRT-based products sold in California. It also sets rules on exporting to-be-recycled electronic gear to other countries, and requires manufacturers phase out dangerous substances in equipment.

Recycling Fee

Because of the many environmentally harmful substances in CRT-based electronics, state and local governments often frown on people just throwing them away. But recycling them can be difficult and costly. It leaves environmentally conscious computer users in a quandary over what to do computers, monitors, televisions, and other electronic gadgets when they become redundant, outdated, or broken.

When the new law takes effect on July 1, 2004, Californians must pay an additional $6 to $10 for every new CRT-based product, such as a conventional TV or monitor. With the income, the state will cover the cost of recycling discarded tubes. Massachusetts passed a similar measure three years ago.

Another provision requires manufacturers to phase out certain hazardous materials by 2007.

State Senator Byron Sher (D-Stanford) modeled the provision on similar rules (and a similar timetable) enacted by the European Union. Companies will have one set of guidelines for selling electronics in California and Europe.

The most controversial part of the legislation involves one of the most troubling aspects of recycled electronics: exporting the problem elsewhere. Many recyclers simply ship the discarded components to third-world countries--usually in Asia--where they are broken down so the more valuable of the raw materials can be reused. Unfortunately, these countries seldom have strict environmental laws, and the results can be much more damaging than leaving a monitor in a landfill.

The measure doesn't outlaw exporting discarded electronics, but it restricts the practice. For instance, a California-based recycler must identify the foreign party receiving the goods, and that party must be certified by the state of California.

Ongoing Debate

California's new law, formerly Senate Bill 20, is the second legislation of its type to pass the state legislature. The governor vetoed the first bill last year. However, Senator Sher's office didn't expect a problem this time, with the embattled governor trying to keep his profile high during a gubernatorial recall campaign.

"All indications are that he will sign it before the end of the week," Sher's chief of staff, Kip Lipper, said on Tuesday.

Still, some environmental groups want to push for even stricter policy to stop the flood of toxins. The Basel Action Network, for example, has called it "worse than nothing." The organization describes the offshore dumping aspect of the recycling problem as " ... tantamount to placing all hazardous waste management facilities in the poorest neighborhoods as long as they are sold as state-of-the-art facilities."

Lipper points out that the Sierra Club supports the bill, and suggests some organizations are "comparing this bill to something that is in their head. The fact is that their theory will never become the policy of any state."

According to Lipper, Hewlett-Packard Co. was the primary computer manufacturer to fight the bill's passage. He surmises the California-based company is worried it will have to pay the required fee, while out-of-state mail-order competitors such as Dell Inc. will not. By law, of course, all vendors must charge the fee on California sales. But if sales tax is any indication, it's difficult to enforce state laws on interstate commerce. HP did not return calls seeking comment.

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