Supposedly, we face a major tech-trash “crisis.” Too many Americans, according to a handful of in Congress, use their old home computers and other outmoded electronics as giant paperweights, storing them in attics, garages, and basements and “taking up space in homes and businesses.”
The “inappropriate storage of these things is not an option,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, California Democrat, at a recent press conference. In the face of this calamity, he and three colleagues announced a new “working group” to educate Congress, apparently in the dark on the dangers of so called “e-waste” stored in homes or buried in landfills.
Mr. Thompson, along with Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, Louise Slaughter New York Democrat, and Mary Bono, California Republican, report Congress needs a national solution to address the uncontrollable increase of used electronics. Furthermore, they claim human health and the environment are threatened by “large amounts of documented hazardous materials” contained in e-waste, and that the waste will continue to be a threat until it is recycled.
Unfortunately, our legislators are victims of widespread misinformation spread largely by eco-activist groups who claim electronic waste reflects the ills of a “throwaway” society and that recycling e-waste is our moral obligation to achieve “zero waste tolerance.”
One can only hope a working group to study the issue will help these members of Congress get some facts straight. Consider:
E-waste, including personal computers, TVs, VCRs, DVD players, audio systems, and home office electronics, amounts to only 1 percent of the total U.S. municipal waste stream, according to waste data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Further, it has not increased as a percent of the waste stream but has remained at 1 percent since 1999.
The number of discarded computers is leveling. According to a study by the National Safety Council, castoffs will max out at 63 million this year before they begin declining. The main reason is used machines consumer hold on to — surprisingly, 75 percent of all outdated computers — increasingly are being reused within the home for young children, donated or given to older relatives.
While still a lot of e-waste, it’s neither a crisis nor uncontrollable. Most of it can be safely contained in today’s modern and heavily-regulated municipal landfills.
Some e-waste contains materials that can be hazardous, but only at high exposures. The main scare du jour is the lead used in computer and TV monitors to protect users from tubes’ x-rays. However, there is absolutely no evidence e-waste in landfills presents a health or environmental risk.
Timothy Townsend of the University of Florida, a leading expert on effects of e-waste in landfills, concluded after extensive study “there is no compelling evidence” e-waste in municipal landfills poses a health risk. Similar studies show like results.
Mandated recycling is not the answer. The costs, ultimately passed on to consumers in taxes and higher purchase prices, are staggering — $500 per ton of e-waste to recycle versus $40 a ton to landfill. Yet for what purpose? There is no evidence government-prescribed recycling offers a net environmental benefit over landfilling. Further, recycling unleashes its own set of human and environmental risks.
The United Kingdom, for example, is being forced to recycle all its used electronic and electrical products through a major European Union directive and is bracing for an avalanche of unwanted goods. Officials fear, without a proper market for the discards, stockpiling end-life products could present a serious environmental and health threat if not contained somehow.
Congress has every right to form a working group to explore the used-electronics issue. For starters, they should investigate voluntary take-back programs run by Dell, Hewlett-Packard and other manufacturers that have a track record of recycling and refurbishing obsolete electronics better and cheaper than government. But Congress also has a responsibility to uncover the facts, not to work from baseless assumptions and misinformation spread by agenda-driven pressure groups.
Dana Joel Gattuso is an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.