Computers have an average life expectancy of three to six years. After that, it's often time to pull the plug, leaving consumers with a problem: What does one do with the old when bringing in the new? Chances are the local landfill won't take it.

Computers, especially cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, contain several elements harmful to the environment. The good news is that these elements are usually recyclable. The bad news is this costs money, and nonprofit companies that accept donations often get stuck with having to dispose of computer electronics in an environmentally safe and economically feasible way.

"Electronic waste is becoming a costly problem for us," said Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, spokeswoman of Goodwill Industries International Inc. "[In 2004] alone, we got more than 23 million pounds of electronic goods, and 10 to 30 percent of those donations were unusable."

As computer use continues to increase dramatically, the United States will face more and more electronic waste considered toxic and unfit for burial. For this reason, Congress initiated a working group to determine a course of action.

But devising federal legislation could take a while. In the meantime, a few states have enacted their own laws to effectively handle electronic waste.

California, Maine and Maryland have already created laws, but differing state laws mandating financial contributions from manufacturers scattered throughout the nation could create confusion for global electronics manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard (HP) -- confusion that could be minimized or eliminated with a single, unified nationwide system.

"Our dream is that there is federal legislation harmonized at a worldwide level," said Renee St. Denis, director of Americas Product Take Back at HP. "That's probably a pipe dream, but we think federal legislation in the United States is probably -- on some level -- inevitable, because as states do their own thing, it's really tough to comply."

Multiple Methods

With federal legislation a future possibility, policymakers in Congress can start by considering the three states' laws to get working knowledge of the different approaches. The most obvious disparity among them is who should be held responsible for recycling costs -- consumers, manufacturers or the government.

In California, electronic recycling is funded by waste recycling fees assessed to the customer, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2005. Retailers collect between $6 and $10 per device, based on size at the time of purchase, and the fees are sent to the State Board of Equalization quarterly. The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) administers the program and distributes the payments to recyclers to cover costs.

To be eligible to receive payment for recycling, recyclers must be approved by the CIWMB, a process that includes registering with the Department of Toxic Substances Control as a hazardous waste handler.

"It's not like handling explosive and toxic corrosive chemicals," said Chris Peck, CIWMB spokesman. "It's under the rubric of what's called universal waste, which has more general requirements for handling. But the department wants to know who's handling the materials, and they have to be inspected."

Maine's law mandates that manufacturers pay for transporting and collecting electronic waste, with municipalities responsible for the physical collection and transportation to consolidation centers. The consolidation centers prepare the electronic waste for shipment to recycling centers, and ultimately must ensure that each device is attributed to a manufacturer so each manufacturer can be billed appropriately.

In Maryland, local government and manufacturers share financial responsibility. Counties pay for the entire recycling process, but they can acquire funding assistance through grants drawn from the State Recycling Trust Fund, which comes from a $5,000 fee assessed annually to each manufacturer. Maryland also advocates the establishment of manufacturer take-back programs, which can reduce annual payments to $500, but only after the first year's full fee.

Some electronic manufacturers, such as HP, already

Sherry Watkins  |  Contributing Writer