One bill, introduced by Democratic Sen. Byron Sher, would establish a state program to recycle CRT (cathode-ray tube) devices including computer monitors and television sets. The bill sets July 1, 2003, as the starting date by which every retailer that sells CRT devices in the state must begin collecting from consumers an as yet unspecified fee that would go toward funding the program.
The other bill, authored by Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero, aims to set up a program to recover, reuse and recycle what it defines as hazardous electronic scrap. Under this proposal, starting Jan. 1, 2004, manufacturers would be required to label a wide range of electronic devices as hazardous and set up a system for taking back obsolete devices, or pay a fee to the state.
The Romero legislation encompasses virtually every high-tech product a consumer might buy, including computer and video monitors, desktop and notebook PCs, and handheld gadgets. Those devices contain, to one degree or another, substances such as lead and mercury that the bill describes as a "persistent biolaccumulative toxin," meaning that they gather in the body and can pose health risks.
The California proposals are among the first such governmental actions in the United States and are significant both because of the state's size and the many tech companies that call it home. European Union nations and Japan also have enacted or are debating similar legislation.
Health fears are part of the driving force behind such actions. There's also the sheer volume of electronic goods poised for a final trip to the junkyard. For example, the California Integrated Waste Management Board (IWMB) estimates that state residents have stockpiled more than 6 million obsolete monitors and TV sets in their homes.
"Electronic scrap represents one of the fastest growing and most problematic components of California's waste stream," the Romero bill says, echoing what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said about e-scrap across the country.
Spurred by these concerns, manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard, Sony Electronics and IBM have launched recycling and reuse programs in the United States and elsewhere, often charging consumers a fee of between $10 and $35. Retailers Best Buy and Staples also have conducted product take-back programs on a small scale.
The efforts are still somewhat tentative and in their early stages, but have been viewed in a positive light by many government agencies and industry observers.
"It truly seems the industry itself is recognizing they have issues to work with and is actively engaging in trying to find answers to those issues," said Michael Paparian, a member of the IWMB.
Environmental groups take a harsher view, saying that the high-tech industry hasn't done nearly enough and foists costs onto consumers that should be picked up by the manufacturers themselves.
"The U.S. is developing very questionable practices to deal with the problem of e-waste," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "What we should be doing is establishing producer responsibility rules...Then we'll have money flowing to pay for an appropriate system."