Portland (Maine) Press Herald, January 18, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: We don't know 100% for sure that discarding old electronic gear into the natural environment will harm anything -- but there's a lot of evidence that it might. Such a situation calls for precautionary action -- specifically, "extended producer responsibility," which the state of Maine has adopted.]

By Tom Bell

A new law goes into effect today that makes Maine the first state in the nation to require manufacturers to pick up the cost of recycling old TVs and computer monitors.

Environmentalists say the law will encourage manufacturers to design products that are less toxic and easier to recycle. They hope other states will follow Maine's example.

"It's a very pioneering approach in this country," said Sego Jackson, a county planner in Washington state, which is considering similar legislation. "The Maine legislation has been breakthrough legislation for the United States. It points us in a different direction."

There is growing concern nationally about the cascade of out-of-date electronic equipment being buried in landfills or burned in incinerators. Each computer or TV monitor contains about 5 pounds of lead, as well as mercury, cadmium and other toxic chemicals. Flat panel TVs and monitors don't have lead but contain mercury.

European governments and Japan for years have required manufacturers to pay for recycling electronics and some appliances, but the United States has been reluctant to do so, making disposal a responsibility of local governments and local taxpayers.

In the United States, only California has a significant electronic waste recycling program. But California's program is different from Maine's. The Golden State collects an up-front disposal fee at the store when products are purchased and then distributes the money to pay recycling costs.

Environmentalists hope other states follow Maine, not California.

Maine's system is market-based. Manufacturers pay for the cost of sorting and recycling, based on what is actually thrown away, paying up to 42 cents a pound.

Maine's way is better because it gives manufactures an incentive to design their products so they can be recycled more easily, said Jon Hinck, an attorney with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"As you look around the United States and see activity on the electronic waste issue, many of the best measures are inspired by the Maine approach," Hinck said.

The Maine Legislature passed the measure two years ago. The law makes cities and towns responsible for setting up collection times and sites and shipping the items to one of five "consolidators" chosen by the state.

The consolidators sort the items, identify the manufacturer of each item and send a bill to the manufacturer for the cost of recycling, handling and transporting the item.

In the past, many Maine towns have struggled to find a way to dispose of electronic equipment, said Michael Starn of the Maine Municipal Association. He said the new law will be a big help.

By making it less costly for municipalities to get rid of old TVs and computer monitors, more of the items will be recycled rather than buried in landfills, said Carole Cifrino, an environmental specialist with the state's Division of Solid Waste Management.

The law's greatest significance is that more populous states are using it as a template for their own measures, said Barbara Kyle, campaign coordinator for the Computer TakeBack Campaign, based in San Jose, Calif.

About 15 states are looking at taking Maine's approach, and bills have been introduced in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Wisconsin and New York City, Kyle said.

"This model of producer responsibility is really significant," she said. "Manufacturers are paying, not the taxpayers, so it's not a taxpayer burden."

Washington state is looking at creating similar program. But that state's legislation is even more stringent, requiring manufacturers to pick up cost of collecting the items as well.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 623-1031 or at: tbell@pressherald.com

Copyright 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.