California prepares to introduce the nation’s first statewide electronic-waste-recycling program

Sanitized for your protection: Gregg Wolke and the aftermath of planned obsolescence.

Sanitized for your protection: Gregg Wolke and the aftermath of planned obsolescence.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was a Luddite’s dream, a world of mass computricide in which frustrating machines were reduced to piles of circuit boards, scrap metal, plastic and crushed glass. “There’s a lot of work to be done here,” said Gregg Wolke, general manager at HMR Recycling in Sacramento, one of the places computers go to be “demanufactured.” “I could give you a screwdriver, and you and me could get one apart in a few minutes.” It was a tempting offer—but my recurring daydream has always involved a sledgehammer.

HMR’s enormous 294,000-square-foot demanufacturing facility is one small part of a global battle against electronic junk. Millions of tons of discarded electronics, known as e-waste, are occupying too much real estate and are threatening the environment and our health. The solution to this crisis will require cooperation and compromise from consumers; manufacturers; local, state and federal governments; and international organizations. Not everyone has been willing to compromise or cooperate, but the state of California is definitely taking on the problem. In July, Californians will begin paying a $6-to-$10 fee whenever a TV or a computer monitor is purchased. The money will go to fund the first statewide e-waste recycling program in the United States.

Electronics like TVs and stereos once were kept in the home for at least a decade. When they broke down, they were repaired. Modern homes have a lot more electronics than just TVs and stereos, and today almost no one bothers to repair them, because they become obsolete in only a few years. The average computer’s life span is only two years. In California, 6,000 computers go obsolete every day. High-definition TV is becoming more and more common, and liquid-crystal-display (LCD) screens are rapidly replacing the old cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) in computers. This means a major increase in the number of old computer monitors and TV sets that get tossed out.

Where will they all go? Most e-waste ends up in landfills; Americans dump more than 3.2 million tons of e-waste into them every year. The amount has grown even greater than the amount of disposable diapers or plastic bottles. Diapers and plastics are bad enough, but electronics contain a truly evil brew of toxic chemicals that slowly seep into our groundwater. Each CRT contains several pounds of lead, used to protect us from radiation. The flat-screen monitors contain mercury, and the circuit boards are coated in carcinogenic brominated flame retardant. Other carcinogens, like cadmium and beryllium, also are common in computer components. E-waste is responsible for 70 percent of all heavy metals found in U.S. landfills. In April 2001, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control banned CRTs from California landfills, and last year it announced that cell phones, stereos and computer hard drives would be banned starting in 2006.

In terms of recycling, computers have a remarkably low value. The total worth of the aluminum, copper, gold, silver, steel and plastic is less than $5.

Though they’re easy enough to disassemble, computers are difficult and hazardous to recycle completely. That’s why a computer recycler will charge around $35 to take away an old computer. To avoid the cost, many owners sneak them into dumpsters or keep them indefinitely in closets or garages. It is estimated that Californians have 6 million old computers and TVs stored at home.

Those computers that do get recycled typically pass through several parties in the recycling/reuse market. Working components are sold as used equipment, and the rest is sorted and sold by lots to scrap brokers. Scrap brokers are very likely to export e-waste, depending on the global market. It comes down to basic economics: Spend money on disassembly and handling hazardous materials or collect money for loading it into a shipping container. This is why most computers sent to recyclers in the United States actually end up in developing nations with low wages and lax enforcement of environmental-protection and worker-safety laws.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that it is 10 times cheaper to ship CRTs to China than it is to recycle them in the United States. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimates that as much as 80 percent of old computers are shipped to Asia for recycling. Most go to China, where recycling is done in a low-tech fashion. Workers in China’s electronics-recycling industry, many of them women and children, earn the equivalent of $1.50 per day.

Jim Puckett, of the organization Basel Action Network (BAN), recently traveled to China and witnessed a “cyber-age nightmare.” CRTs are cracked open, and the copper-laden yokes are removed. The lead-bearing broken glass is often discarded on the land or dumped into rivers. Solder is melted out of circuit boards, and then the computer chips go into acid baths for gold recovery. The spent acid is dumped into waterways, and the stripped fiberglass circuit boards are burned. Cables insulated with PVC are burned, and copper wire is recovered from the ashes.

Back here in the United States, prisoners—who could be paid as little as 20 cents per hour—were seen as the solution. UNICOR, a federal program that uses prison labor, was ready to take the lead in e-waste recycling, but now its role is unclear. UNICOR’s mission statement says it minimizes the “impact on private business and labor” while it keeps “inmates constructively occupied.” Labor and environmental groups successfully pressured Dell Computer and California’s Department of General Services to cancel contracts that sent tons of e-waste to Atwater Prison south of Sacramento. Activists dressed in prison stripes confronted Dell’s chief executive at last year’s national electronics show and accused him of hiring a “high-tech chain gang.” Union leaders met with former Governor Gray Davis last summer and persuaded him to pull out of a deal that had already sent 370 tons of e-waste to Atwater.

After California stopped using prison labor, the state awarded HMR Recycling a contract to handle most of the government’s e-waste (Dell switched to a company in Texas). HMR is a multinational corporation with branches in the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In San Francisco, HMR resells working computers at a retail location. Nonworking electronics go to Sacramento’s demanufacturing facility near Highway 50 and Power Inn Road. The Sacramento location has one of the few CRT crushers in the region. The machine crushes the CRTs, and the glass is sent to locations in Canada and Missouri for smelting. HMR’s Web site says the Sacramento location “handles non-remarketable electronic equipment for demanufacture into commodities for sale to licensed recyclers.” Even so, general manager Wolke cannot say for certain that commodities from Sacramento don’t ultimately end up in China. “To be honest with you, we don’t [know],” he admitted. “We can’t regulate the world. If we find out somebody is doing something that is against the law, then we don’t want to do business with them. Our intent is to be in compliance with any and all laws.”

Meanwhile, in Roseville, Hewlett-Packard is recycling computers without prison labor and (at least in theory) without exporting them to Asia. Dell customers paid $15 for recycling at Atwater Prison, but Hewlett-Packard customers have to fork over $46 (plus shipping) to have a clear conscience. In an effort to appease those who complain of the high cost of recycling, HP is now giving away $50 coupons, good for purchasing new HP computers, to everyone who turns in an old computer.

The HP coupon program at least begins to approach the ideal of extended producer responsibility (EPR), which means “cradle to grave” responsibility on the part of the manufacturer. The manufacturer sells the product and later takes it back for recycling. Advocates of EPR envision a future in which all products either are biodegradable or can be reused or recycled endlessly.

And that future is here—actually, it’s over there, in Europe. In 1991, Germany was the first to make EPR the law of the land. It started with automobiles; producers were forced to take back old cars. Automakers began building cars with recycling in mind. This reduced waste, saved money and created more jobs. Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands followed suit, and in 2000, the European Union passed a regional directive. Now EPR laws cover home appliances, office equipment and electronics.

Around the same time that EPR was beginning to take hold in Europe, an international treaty was signed in Basel, Switzerland. The treaty, known as the Basel Convention, was created in response to hazardous-waste trafficking that began to increase in the late 1980s. The Basel Convention puts a total ban on rich countries exporting hazardous waste to poor countries for any reason—including recycling. This forces nations to deal with their hazardous-waste problems within their own borders. The United States is the only developed country in the world that has not ratified the Basel Convention. BAN (at www.ban.org) is an organization working to make the United States a part of the convention. BAN has joined the Computer TakeBack Campaign (www.computertakeback.com), a coalition of organizations working to make EPR a reality in the United States.

At the federal level, California Representative Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, is pushing legislation called the “National Computer Recycling Act.” Although the original bill failed to pass the 2002 congressional session, he currently is working on another bill, which, at present, has stalled in a House committee.

At the state level, Senator Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, got an e-waste bill through the Legislature, but Davis vetoed it. The bill would have set up a state-run system that recycled CRTs by charging $10 on every TV and computer monitor sold. Davis explained his veto by saying, “We should compel industry to solve this problem.” He went on to cite the European Union as a model: “The European Union is working on a program to assure that manufacturers maintain responsibility for the safe recycling of the products they produce.” Sher went back to work on writing new, tougher legislation that would hold electronics manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their products. Senate Bill 20, the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003, was moving through committee hearings when something unprecedented in California history happened: the recall.

Kip Lipper, staff director for Sher’s committee, said, “We didn’t know who would become the next governor; it might have been Issa.” (Congressman Darrell Issa, who funded the recall campaign with $1.7 million of his personal fortune, is the former director of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee and the former head of the Electronic Industries Alliance—an opponent of Senate Bill 20. Issa was thought to be a frontrunner for governor, but he dropped out of the race the day after Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy in August.)

In late July, just one week before Schwarzenegger’s surprise announcement on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, a key provision in Sher’s recycling bill was removed. The provision required manufacturers to “prepare and submit to the board a hazardous electronic device recovery plan.” Ted Smith, of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, said, “Unfortunately, the legislative process was short-circuited by the scheduling of the recall election, and IBM and the TV manufacturers, such as Panasonic and Sony, took advantage of the political chaos in Sacramento.”

Davis signed the bill into law less than two weeks before he lost the recall election. Lipper said the final version of the bill was a “political compromise.” Manufacturers are not required to take back old equipment, but they are required to meet the toxic-phase-out standards of the European Union’s directive. Lead and mercury are scheduled to be phased out of computers by 2007. Lipper further pointed out that recycling using prison labor is expressly forbidden.

So, in the end, the electronics manufacturers were let off the hook—state government will clean up the mess. After July 1, retailers will collect a $6-to-$10 fee on the purchase of new CRT monitors and TVs. The fees go to the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board. The board will pay authorized waste collectors and recyclers to operate programs in which consumers can drop off their old computers free of charge. Critics say the fee paid at the time of purchase is far too low to pay for the program. Lipper says the fee can be adjusted periodically to cover the costs; he suggested that the fee could rise to $30 in the future. But critics also contend that the new law has loopholes that will allow exports to developing countries and that the law only covers CRTs. Central processing units (CPUs), printers and other computer hardware are not covered.

Lipper and Sher are working on yet another e-waste bill, Senate Bill 50. This new bill is expected to cover more types of e-waste and to close potential loopholes that allow the export of hazardous waste.

Meanwhile, Wolke can look forward to demanufacturing just about every type of computer ever made. He smiled and said, "I saw a couple of Commodore 64s up here the other day."