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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Taxing times for e-waste
Should we be made to pay a recycling tax on our computer equipment as a way of dealing with the growing pile of e-waste, asks technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Computer waste (Photo: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition)
E-waste often ends up in China
In two weeks California Governor Gray Davis could find himself recalled by his electorate, who will then be able to select his replacement from a random assortment of politicians, actors and self-promoters.

The threat of imminent political extinction seems to have motivated Mr Davis, who has pushed through a number of new laws and regulations that had previously been stalled.

A new gun safety bill, legislation giving same-sex partners marriage rights and a controversial law allowing illegal immigrants to apply for driving licenses have all been signed after being approved by a Democrat-controlled State Assembly, worried about losing the governorship to a Republican.

Mr Davis has even signed a bill imposing the toughest anti-spam regulations of any US state. But his latest initiative could have more impact than any of the others.

Hazardous waste

Under the Electronic Waste Recycling Act, Californians will have to pay an extra $6-$10 for every computer monitor and TV.

The money will go to pay for the safe removal and recycling of the poisonous chemicals that are used in today's screens and the circuit boards inside them, including the heavy metals lead and cadmium, and organic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls.

The bill was initially proposed by Byron Sher, senator for Palo Alto, which lies at the heart of Silicon Valley, and was at first rejected after pressure from manufacturers who did not want to have to charge more or change their practices.

Bill Thompson
There has been too little pressure on manufacturers to redesign their systems to do less damage, and too little effort made to ensure that old products do not end up in landfill
Bill Thompson

Now, as Mr Davis spends his last political capital trying to persuade voters to stick with him, the measure has been passed.

From July 2004 firms will have to put programmes in place to recycle hazardous waste and reduce the amount of toxic material used in their products.

In January 2002 the UK had a fridge mountain after new laws on recycling the CFC-based coolant in older fridges came into effect. Some 2.7 million fridges are replaced in this country each year and poor planning meant there were too few places which could deal with them.

The government of California estimates that the state has six million old monitors and TVs to be recycled already, with 10,000 being thrown out every day.

Just dealing with this backlog will be a major undertaking and could cause environmental problems itself.

Dirty technology

However the move towards a more responsible approach to the environmental impact of computers should be welcomed.

We have ignored the problem for many years, acting as if computer-based systems were somehow clean and disregarding the way that toxic chemicals are used to make everything from silicon chips to plastic cases.

Computer waste (Photo: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition)
Monitor mountain keeps on growing
There has been too little pressure on manufacturers to redesign their systems to do less damage, and too little effort made to ensure that old products do not end up in landfill, leaching poisons into streams and fields.

We also lack ways to ensure that expensive technology, often produced at great environmental cost, is used for as long as possible.

Refurbishing old monitors, by cleaning them, correcting misaligned components and testing them for electrical safety, is far more sensible than breaking them up and trying to strip out the harmful components for safe disposal or reuse.

Making manufacturers and customers aware that our shiny new technology is as dirty in its own way as a 1950's Soviet glue factory is a start, but awareness does not always lead to action.

It would be good to see a law similar to the California legislation over here in Europe, where we have just as great a problem.

I know, because I have got three old monitors in my cupboard already.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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