The Information Age's Toxic Garbage

California could set the standard for dealing with discarded PCs

It's enough to make any environmentalist cringe: In 2003 alone, an estimated 63 million desktop personal computers in America will become primed for the scrap heap. Each contains roughly four pounds of lead -- most of it in the monitor -- not to mention small quantities of highly toxic cadmium and mercury. That adds up to a lot of nasty garbage, much of which is now dumped in landfills or shipped to nations with lax environmental laws. Says David Wood, the executive director of Grassroots Recycling Network: "It's time to address the electronics-waste issue before it gets any worse."

California, the bellwether state of green policymaking, is doing just that. On Sept. 12, the California Senate passed a bill that would impose a recycling fee of $6-$10 on every PC sold in the state. The money would finance a government program to dispose safely of the toxic metals found in monitors and circuit boards. PC makers also would be forced to phase out dangerous materials. If Governor Gray Davis signs the bill -- which he was expected to do on Sept. 25 -- it could create a model for greens in other states to emulate. This comes just as Corporate America is poised to start replacing millions of its aging PCs and monitors with new gear.

The great e-waste debate really erupted two years ago, when it was revealed that many of the nation's discarded personal computers were being shipped to poor nations. In China, where many discards end up, dead PCs are valued for their copper, aluminum, and gold innards. But primitive extraction methods mean that lead and other toxins leach into the soil and water.

Initially, the California legislation aimed to make companies responsible for recycling their own products -- akin to a law recently passed in the European Union. U.S. companies successfully fought that version, arguing it would burden them with a $30-per-computer cost at a time when sales remain weak.

Environmentalists expect that even a diluted bill will have some bite. Starting in 2007, it will be illegal to sell devices in California that don't hew to EU rules mandating a gradual phaseout of toxins. Moreover, every two years, tech companies will have to disclose the levels of hazardous materials in their products.

Tech outfits for the most part seem resigned to the new reality. Says David Thompson, Panasonic's director of environmental affairs: "Manufacturers do care about how they're perceived." They'd better, if high tech hopes to regain its green reputation.

By Ben Elgin in San Mateo, Calif.

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