Computer recycling bill passes

State fund would finance programs in local areas

Science

April 15, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

If you want to get rid of an old computer responsibly but don't know how to go about it, things may get easier in Maryland starting this summer.

A bill establishing a statewide computer-recycling program squeaked through the General Assembly this week on the last day of the 2005 session after getting last-minute support from Hewlett-Packard - which has its own computer-recycling programs and initially favored a different approach.

"The important thing was that in the end, everyone was for the bill," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the measure. The governor is expected to sign the bill into law in the weeks ahead.

The law is to intercept computers before they wind up in landfills, where lead and other dangerous metals used in their electronics can leak into the environment.

Effective July 1, the statute will require computer manufacturers to pay $5,000 each year into a state fund to finance recycling programs in local jurisdictions. After the first year, the computer makers can reduce their payments to an annual $500 by setting up their own computer "take back" programs.

The law, which has the support of the Maryland Department of the Environment, allows manufacturers to establish take-back programs by working with counties, retail outlets, recycling firms, or coming up with any type of program approved by MDE.

"We're trying to be very flexible in terms of the type of take-back programs that manufacturers set up," said Morhaim, who is also a physician.

Maryland is the third state to adopt such a measure, along with California and Maine, said Rick Goss, director of environmental affairs from the Electronic Industries Alliance, a group that represents the computer industry.

California charges up to $10 for each computer sold to cover the costs of recycling. Beginning next year, Maine will require computer manufacturers to set up consolidation centers where municipalities can drop off residents' computers as well as television sets and other electronics.

Dangerous materials

Each computer monitor with a traditional cathode ray tube contains 3 to 8 pounds of lead to shield users from harmful ultraviolet rays. The computers themselves are made with small amounts of cadmium, lead, mercury and other toxic materials, according to industry reports.

Goss said the industry is willing to accept responsibility for recycling its products. An estimated 20 million computers will become obsolete this year, but only 1 million to 2 million will be recycled, he said.

"The biggest hurdle is getting these devices out of people's basements and attics and into the waste systems where they can be recycled," Goss said.

The law focuses strictly on collecting computers and monitors and doesn't apply to scanners, cables or other peripheral equipment.

Goss acknowledged that the recycling laws are likely to result in higher-priced computers but added, "These costs have to come from somewhere."

The Maryland law will apply to computer makers with annual sales of more than 1,000 computers nationwide. Firms that sell over the Internet also will pay the fee. Payments will be due each year on Jan. 1.

MDE estimates that 100 computer makers will pay the fee the first year and that about half will set up recycling programs and pay a lower fee in the years ahead.

Morhaim said recycling is a necessity because more computers are becoming obsolete each year - the average computer's shelf life is about two years - and computer-recycling efforts are inconsistent from one county to the next.

Some counties allow residents to drop off computers during scheduled collection drives once or twice a year, while others accept computers at landfills year-round. A patchwork of private collectors also accepts computer equipment, but most charge fees.

"Right now, it's haphazard, and federal funding for the counties to do this sort of thing is drying up," Morhaim said.

Second effort

The Maryland measure was hammered out by a group of legislators and computer-firm representatives set up last spring after a computer-recycling bill failed in last year's General Assembly.

"Without this bill, there wouldn't be any money for this kind of thing," said J. Steven Wise, a lobbyist and spokesman for the Electronic Manufacturers Coalition for Responsible Recycling, which represents a dozen computer-manufacturing firms, including IBM, Panasonic and Sony.

"We want to make sure the money starts flowing to the local jurisdictions, where it should be," said Mark J. Sharp, a spokesman for Panasonic. "Basically, we feel good that there will be funds available now to do recycling."

Representatives for Hewlett-Packard initially withheld support, arguing that charging major computer makers only $5,000 wouldn't cover the costs involved in collecting and recycling all the computers they sell.

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