US government intends to recycle tech goods

My dad has two old computers, a 21-inch CRT and a 15-inch LCD, ahandful of old cell phones, and a few ancient digital camerassitting around his office, taking up space and gathering dust. Thisyear’s holiday haul will eventually join the heap. He doesn’t usethese things anymore, but he’s not quite sure what to do with them.Sound familiar?

There are some private recycling services and places where you candonate your used tech goods (see “Recycling now,” below). You canalso try to resell the stuff via online auction sites. But myfather doesn’t want to cull through multiple donation and recyclingprograms to see which one wants or will take his stuff, and hedoesn’t want to sell it at auction. He just wants a place to dropit all off, one that will handle it properly so that he won’t endup drinking toxic bits of it a few years down the line.

The government wants to help, really. A couple of bills, a newcongressional group, and a Government Accountability Office reportall attest to these good intentions. Problem is, all of theseinitiatives and proposals have remained just that — initiativesand proposals, not action.

On the government recycling table

Congress considered a new tack on recycling last year with a billthat would have given a tax incentive to companies and individualsfor recycling their tech goods, while at the same time mandating aninvestigation into the possibility of a national recycling plan.The Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer ProtectionAct was introduced in the Senate (S. 510) back in March, and in theHouse of Representatives (H.R. 4316) in November. It then went intothat black hole known as a congressional committee, and has yet toemerge.

Even earlier in the year, Congress took a stab at the problemthrough another proposed bill, the National Computer Recycling Act(H.R. 425). This one would have put the Environmental ProtectionAgency in charge of a national recycling and grant program thatwould collect a fee (up to $10) when anyone purchases certain typesof computer equipment. The money collected would have been used toprovide grants to individuals, local governments, or privateorganizations that recycle or reuse computers and their parts. Thisbill has been proposed several times before; once again, it gotstuck in committee.

Some representatives formed the Congressional E-Waste Working Groupin May to study and educate members of Congress on the issue.Although the group has recommended adoption of a national recyclingplan, this hasn’t happened.

Even the GAO has gotten into the act with a study it released inNovember. Among other things, the report concluded that havingdifferent recycling requirements in different states would place anundue burden on manufacturers, which argues for a national plan.The report also recommended that the Environmental ProtectionAgency help Congress draft legislation that would help peopleovercome the financial barriers to recycling. Right now, privatecompanies often charge US$20 to $30, or even more, to get rid ofyour old equipment; that’s because these companies don’t makeenough money to make a profit by selling raw materials they extractfrom tech waste. Unless you can drop something off at a localcharity — many of which are getting more and more choosey aboutwhat they’ll accept — at a minimum you’ll have to pay shippingcosts to get your goods to a recycler.

Given all this attempted action, it’s clear the tech recyclingproblem has registered on the congressional consciousness. We’llsee solutions enacted, however, only when the financial questionhas been resolved.

The money pit

Although it’s easy to get people to agree that we need to dosomething about our growing mass of tech waste, it’s far from easyto get anyone to agree on what we should do, and how we should payfor it.

I tend to agree with the GAO that having individual states come upwith their own regulations would be cumbersome; worse, it wouldleave some of us with good options, and others with none, or badones. It would be great to have the problem handled by a singlenational organization, with local drop-off points, that couldchannel tech goods to other agencies for donation or to companieswith government-approved recycling programs. That way I wouldn’thave to spend a lot of time checking out dozens of local andnational sites or stores; I would always know to take my goods whenI’m ready to be rid of them. It would be a post office for techparcels, of sorts.

Yes, that would mean the creation of yet another government agency,with all the potential for bureaucratic inefficiency and abuse thatsuch agencies entail. But with the right public and/or privateoversight, it should be possible to minimize the negatives. Thiswould be better than simply giving grants to approved recyclingcompanies in order to help cover their costs: While this approachwould keep the wallet hit to you and me at a minimum (therebyhelping remove the financial disincentive to recycle), it would donothing to make recycling more convenient.

Regardless of how we decide to recycle, we’ll need to find some wayto pay for the expense. I don’t mind the notion of paying a fixedtax surcharge on the tech goods I buy — say $10 or $15 for largeitems, $5 for smaller gadgets — to help defray the costs ofeventual recycling and the agency that makes it convenient for meto do so. A deposit, like the one many of us pay when we buy drinksin cans or bottles and then get back when we turn the containers infor reuse or recycling, could also work; the return refund mightmake the plan palatable to those who don’t want to pay more taxes.

Giving tax breaks to companies who make environmentally friendlygoods is another good idea; if we start out with products that areeasier to dispose of safely, we’re much better off in the long run.

There are numerous options. Now it’s up to us and our government topick one, so that our gadgets don’t turn into poisonousgarbage.

Recycling now

While we wait for our government to act, here are someorganizations that can help you get rid of your old gear now.

The National Cristina Foundation provides tech goods and trainingfor students, persons with disabilities, and others.

The Freecycle Network helps you donate free goods to people whowould like them.

TechSoup helps you find nonprofits or commercial companies thatwill reuse or recycle your goods.

Several tech companies, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM,run recycling programs that will dispose of your old goods, for afee. Check each site for pricing and procedure.

EBay runs a program called the Rethink Initiative, which providesinformation about options for handling your old gear, and can hookyou up with charities or companies that will take your goods.

The National Recycling Coalition offers both information and a listof sites and groups through which you can donate or recycle yourcomputer equipment.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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