Washington State Panel Seek Solution to Electronic Waste Disposal Issue

Tons of potentially hazardous waste is piling up in household storage areas, closets, spare rooms and garages throughout the state.

Nov. 30—Tons of potentially hazardous waste is piling up in household storage areas, closets, spare rooms and garages throughout the state.

The items — computer monitors and television sets — already have been banned from landfills in Snohomish and Kitsap counties. Seattle waste handlers won't touch them. In King County, a similar prohibition is in the works.

Now the state Department of Ecology is studying ways to keep discarded electronic components from contaminating the state's air, land and water.

Advocates of a comprehensive statewide solution say they're trying to head off a potential environmental catastrophe.

"If we don't deal with it, computer piles will be like the tire piles were back in the 1980s," said state Rep. Mike Cooper (D-Edmonds), who sponsored the legislation that called for the Ecology Department's study.

Most TVs and monitors contain lead, cadmium, mercury and other materials that could harm people if improperly scrapped, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In Washington, it's against the law to dump large loads of electronic equipment in ordinary landfills. So businesses, schools, government agencies and charities must recycle surplus equipment or take it to a hazardous waste repository.

State regulations do not prohibit householders from discarding small quantities of surplus electronics in the trash. However, local rules differ.

"It gets pretty confusing," said Lisa Sepanski, solid waste project manager in King County, where officials plan to ban TVs, computers, monitors and cell phones from solid waste collections. The change could occur as soon as Jan. 5.

Even environmentally conscious consumers have a tough time figuring out what to do with electronic equipment they can no longer use.

Ann Vanderpool-Kimura, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologic technician, said she tried to recycle a broken computer monitor, but when she pulled into the recycling station at the Tacoma landfill, an attendant told her to dump it instead.

"My heart kind of sank as I sailed the thing into the bin. It seemed wrong," Vanderpool-Kimura said.

That was about six years ago. Now she wonders what to do with an old TV collecting dust in the garage. If she chooses to recycle it, she will have to find an enterprise willing to do it, and she'll have to pay a fee.

In her view, the environment would be better protected if disposal costs were built into the price of consumer electronics. "I know people wouldn't necessarily like having to pay more," she said, "but if we're going to use an item we have to be honest about the cost of it."

On the national level, EPA officials have tried to coax electronics manufacturers into assuming the cost of recovering hazardous wastes contained in their products.

So far, the voluntary effort has failed. Television manufacturers and computer producers are divided over the so-called product stewardship concept, already instituted in some European countries.

In Washington, the powerful Association of Washington Business has lobbied against increased state regulation of electronic waste. Lobbyist Grant Nelson said it is premature to suggest that manufacturers pay for electronic waste recovery without fully testing voluntary methods.

"People just don't know what to do with products," he said. "We need to educate them better on where to go."

He won't get an argument from Eric Hulscher, operations manager for Tacoma's Goodwill Industries, which serves 14 western and central Washington counties. Goodwill doesn't accept donated TVs and computer monitors. Nevertheless, many people dump them at unattended donation stations.

Something needs to be done at the state level to defray the cost of proper disposal, he said. "Protect us from the predatory dumping that's going on," he said. "It's a killer."

In 2003, Goodwill paid $40,000 to get rid of about 5,000 unwanted TVs and monitors. This year, the total is likely to be $50,000.

Cooper said studies show consumers would be willing to pay more to buy products if they know they can bring them back when they become obsolete.

In EPA-sponsored pilot programs this year, consumers have returned thousands of discarded TVs and other electronics to Good Guys, Office Depot and Staples. Some of the chains have charged fees to cover recycling costs; others did not.

Based on consumer response, the programs were "wildly successful," said Viccy Salazar, the EPA's product stewardship program manager.

"What we're looking for is to make it as convenient to recycle this equipment as it is to buy it new," she said.

But EPA officials have not completed a cost analysis of the pilot programs, she said.

At first blush, electronic waste doesn't appear to be much of a problem in Washington.

Electronics accounted for less than 1 percent of the waste dumped in municipal landfills statewide in 2002, the most recent state figures available. Less than 8 percent of discarded electronics were recycled and most of that equipment did not come from households.

Ecology Department officials and local government representatives aren't sure what consumers have been doing with their outmoded equipment, but much of it is believed to be in storage.

"When you pay thousands of dollars for something, you are naturally reluctant to throw it away," said Bill Smith, senior environmental specialist who oversees Tacoma's recycling programs.

Even so, rapid obsolescence and consumer demand for the latest technology suggest people will discard many more computers in the future.

By 2010, more than 10 million computers, monitors and laptops in Washington households will be out-of-date, according to the Ecology Department.

In Tacoma alone, more than 15,000 households have at least one computer in storage, Smith estimated.

What officials worry about is where all those derelict TVs and computers will wind up when people realize they're worthless, clean out their garages or move.

Even small quantities of heavy metals can cause harm, partly because they accumulate in the food chain. And according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental activist group, 40 percent of the lead in U.S. landfills is derived from electronics.

The biggest problem is cathode ray tubes, used in TVs and computer monitors. Each contains between four and eight pounds of lead.

In King County, the proposed ban on dumping electronic waste follows similar prohibitions already in place in Seattle and in Kitsap and Snohomish counties.

"We feel there's a better use for the resources," King County's Sepanski said. "They can be recycled, reclaimed and they contain heavy metals that don't belong" with ordinary garbage.

To encourage recycling, officials in Seattle and Snohomish and King counties have set up the Take it Back Network, a recycling referral system for consumers.

Local government officials claim they can't afford to collect household electronics without charge. Electronics recycling is a specialized business. Companies require payment for most services. They couldn't profit without it, they say.

Early in the 2004 legislative session, Cooper proposed a statewide ban on dumping household electronics, but failed to win support from other lawmakers.

Without a push from state officials, Pierce County and Tacoma are unlikely to follow King County's lead.

Tacoma's Smith said a ban would be impractical. "A ban is only as good as the enforcement," said Smith, who oversees the city's recycling program. "You've got to look in every load."

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© 2004, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.