ANNAPOLIS – There’s no convenient way to recycle polluting, old computers because many counties do not offer recycling, or offer it only once or twice a year.
But Delegate Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, has proposed a solution. He submitted two bills — to establish a statewide computer recycling program supported by fees collected when computers are purchased and to require new computers to be manufactured in a way that makes disassembly and recycling easier.
The bills have been heard by the Environmental Matters Committee, which is considering combining them.
The computer disposal problem is critical. The number of outdated electronic devices is growing rapidly, existing recycling programs are limited to a few localities and often are offered only a few days a year, and electronic waste contains toxic components that pollute if dumped into landfills or incinerated.
While Morhaim said a statewide recycling program funded by fees from manufacturers is an essential first step, he said he thinks that ultimately the manufacturers should have to take back the machines from consumers.
“Manufacturers need to be motivated to design computers so they can be taken apart and to take them back from consumers,” Morhaim said in a hearing on the bills earlier this month.
Electronic recycling would reduce poisoning by safely disposing of the 3 pounds of lead and other toxins in computers, he said. Cathode ray tube monitors — the predecessors to flat screens — have the most lead — 3 to 7 pounds.
“It’s a problem with a great need for a solution — a huge issue we’re doing a very poor job on,” said Brad Heavner of MaryPIRG.
“Seventy-five percent of computers are stockpiled. We need to aggressively address the issues. The companies who make the money should be responsible cradle to grave,” said Beth McGee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Bills to regulate statewide the disposal and recycling of electronic waste have been introduced year after year in the General Assembly, but all died in the House Environmental Matters Committee, except for a proposal to study the problem that passed in 2004.
While some computer manufacturers have donated funds to help start up recycling programs, these grants have been cut. Both manufacturers and retailers oppose laws forcing them to recycle.
In addition to lead, computers and electronics can contain mercury, cadmium, chromium, bromine and other toxic compounds, and pose a threat to human health and the environment if tossed into a landfill or burned at an incinerator.
Counties that do collect computers must hire commercial recycling firms to dispose of them. Meanwhile the contractors complain they can’t make a profit from selling the computers and their components because prices fluctuate unpredictably. Also they’re expensive to recycle because the dangerous components are intermingled in small quantities.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided seed money and established a pilot project for Maryland’s collection programs from 2001 to 2002 that brought together state environmental protection agencies, electronics manufacturers and electronic recycling firms.
After EPA funding ceased, the Maryland Department of the Environment tried to scrape together funds to continue expanding local collection programs to underserved areas, but the department has been unable to find new grant money, according to MDE’s Hillary Miller.
Although Montgomery, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Howard, and Anne Arundel all offer some computer recycling, some allow daily disposal, others only twice a year. In most other counties, residents have to either store their old computers themselves or toss with other trash.
In Kent, according to a transfer station employee, “We just put them in the trash and send them to Easton to bury.”
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 gave EPA the authority to control hazardous wastes “from cradle to grave,” but it has not been enforced with the disposal of electronic waste.
Subtractions LLC, in Laurel, handles residential waste from all over Maryland, said co-founder Sarah Wilson. The company has charged counties about 10 cents a pound for the electronics they collect from recycling programs.
Some counties charge nothing, others collect a disposal fee. Wicomico, which began its program with EPA money, charges $10 to residents to drop off TVs and computer monitors.
California and Maine both have electronics recycling laws, but they take different approaches.
Collecting disposal fees up front from customers, somewhat like bottle deposits fees, as California does, is thought by Morhaim to be better than charging for disposal because it reduces the financial incentive for illegal dumping. But Maine’s approach is to charge manufacturers when their products are discarded by consumers at local recycling centers.
The European Union has determined the best approach is to design and manufacture products for recycling and safe disposal, so manufacturers who want that market are already beginning to adapt, which means Maryland may soon also have devices designed for disposal.