Bipartisan Group Raises E-Waste Awareness

The newly formed group aims to educate Congress about the dangers of electronic items that are difficult to dispose of safely, such as old computers.

This morning, two Republicans and two Democrats announced the formation of the Congressional E-Waste Working Group. The group, headed by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y, and Mary Bono, R-Calif., plans to explore possible solutions for the growing electronic waste problem and to educate Congress about its possible dangers.

"Today the average lifespan of a computer is only two years and Americans are disposing of 3,000 tons of computers each day. Many people are unaware of how to properly dispose of outdated electronics, so they hold on to them, taking up space in homes and businesses," Rep. Thompson said.

Thompson added, "E-waste is a growing environmental problem that warrants national action. Our working group will meet on a regular basis to investigate the possible solutions to this problem."

One of the groups first orders of business is to educate fellow Congress members about the mounting problem of e-waste.

After the news conference, the group cosponsored its first Congressional staff briefing along with seven major electronics stakeholders: the Consumer Electronics Association, the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, the Electronics Industries Alliance, Panasonic Corp. of North America, Sony Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Goodwill Industries International Inc.

During the event, titled "Electronic Device Recycling: Is a National Implementation Approach Necessary?" Department of Commerces Undersecretary for Technology Ben Wu and Matt Hale, Director of the Environmental Protection Agencys Office of Solid Waste, addressed the attendees.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about an industry group formed by eBay to tackle electronic waste.

Thompson has been a major advocate of national legislation concerning e-waste. In March, he and Cunningham called on the House Science Committee to start hearings on legislation designed to keep e-waste at bay.

"Over 3,000 tons of electronics are discarded everyday in our country," their statement said. "E-waste contains large amounts of documented hazardous materials and carcinogens, including lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated-flame retardants and PVC plastics. We are concerned that until e-waste is properly recycled, its hazardous components will continue to threaten human health and the environment."

Both Thompson and Cunningham had introduced earlier legislation: The National Computer Recycling Act (H.R. 425) and the TIER (Tax Incentives to Encourage Recycling) Act (H.R. 320) respectively.

Matt Gerien, spokesperson for Thompson, said one of the biggest obstacles to getting movement on these issues is that the problem has to "hit a critical mass before other people take notice."

"Its starting to happen," Gerien said. "Knowledge is the biggest roadblock for right now—the information that [e-waste] really is a problem that needs to be dealt with."

Gopal Dayanani, Program Director of the SVTA (Silicon Valley Toxics Association), said its going to take more than information to solve the United States e-waste problem.

"The electronics industry is willing to put a lot of money on the table to make sure they dont have to take care of manufacturing waste," Dayanani said. One of the largest groups opposed to national e-waste has been TV manufacturers, he said, who have "opposed on a state-by-state level."

HP has been a big public advocate for e-waste solutions, though on a far lower level than the group will strive for. For Earth Day last month, the manufacturer chopped prices on its recycling program services to draw customer attention.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about how Hewlett-Packard Co. celebrated Earth Day.

In addition to lack of knowledge about e-waste in Congress, HPs Manager of Corporate Environmental Strategies and Sustainability, John Fray, said that recent HP surveys show a surprising lack of consumer knowledge about e-waste and related recycling programs.

"Weve found that lots of people dont recognize that term," Fray said. "Even if they know what it means, they continue to stockpile the hardware, not sure how to resolve the issue."

Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates conducted a survey for HP. The results showed that U.S. consumers and IT executives had little knowledge about how outdated technology is disposed or recycled. Other findings showed:

  • 95 percent of American consumers do not know the meaning of the term "e-waste," and 58 percent are not aware of an e-waste recycling program in their community.
  • 63 percent of American consumers believe e-waste is a more important or as important an environmental issue as air pollution.
  • 68 percent of consumers stockpile used or unwanted computer equipment in their homes.
  • 70 percent of senior IT decision makers underestimate the cost of end-of-life product disposal.
  • 66 percent of senior IT decision makers are not well informed about end-of-life product disposal.

Dayanani admits that companies like HP and Dell Computer Corp. have committed themselves to extended producer responsibility, something the SVTA hopes to see on a nationally mandated level.

"If they can do it in Europe and in Japan, they can do it here," he said. "I hope [the E-Waste Working Group will] look into whats working in other places."

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