If you found a new computer under your tree last week, you know about the mixed emotions. First, there's the excitement over the prospect of creating slide shows of your digital holiday photos and downloading iTunes. Then, there's the puzzlement over what do with that aging, crash-prone 256-MB dinosaur currently on your desk.
Maybe you can unload it a Goodwill? Or maybe it goes up in the attic next to your dust-covered Commodore and Mac Plus. Or, if state Rep. Jackie Dingfelder gets her way, you may someday be able to drop it off for free at an "e-cycling" center.
The Northeast Portland Democrat has spent the past two and a half years studying the growing problem of electronic waste. According to Wayne Rifer, a member of the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, 17.6 million pounds of computers will go obsolete in Oregon this year--meaning they would be available either for recycling or disposal. Next year, that number is expected to soar to 21.5 million pounds, or the equivalent of 3,359 new Hummers.
While most of the monitors, keyboards and mice end up in basements or thrift shops, many will get tossed in the trash.
Although it's legal for individuals and small businesses to send their outdated hardware to the landfill, it's not, as Dingfelder notes, good for the environment.
An obsolete computer sitting in your garage is an annoyance, but not a danger. Smashed in the back of a garbage truck, however, it can release a laundry list of toxins, including lead and mercury. Luckily, there are alternatives. Green-minded consumers can contract Metro (503-234-3000) to find a nearby e-cycler. But, it will cost you.
Greg Sampson's Tigard warehouse is jammed with computers that can't be reused or donated. As a nearby boom box cranks out the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, four employees take apart monitors and hard drives, tossing different pieces into heavy tubs for re-use and recycling.
Sampson, vice president of Earth Protection Services, says he was never a tree-hugger. "I wasn't too interested in recycling issues until I started learning the impact the material had on the environment," he says. "It's satisfying to be part of a new industry that's doing the right thing."
His firm, like most, asks you to fork over $10 before you kiss your computer goodbye.
Dingfelder applauds these firms and the people who use them. But, she says, it doesn't make sense to penalize consumers who want to be PC when getting rid of their old PCs. For the past several months, she and a team of electronic industry and environmental-activist types--including Rifer--have been looking for solutions.
They're leaning towards an "advanced recovery fee." Every time you would buy a new computer in Oregon, the retailer would tack on a small fee (say $5-$10) and send the money to a state trust fund. The money would support companies that will e-cycle computers at no charge. "It's kind of like social security," Rifer explains. "Money you put in today is spent today to recycle computers coming back. Then, the people who are buying computers five years from now will pay for computers you're disposing."
Dingfelder will introduce a bill containing the proposal when the Legislature convenes next month. It's hard to know what the reaction will be in a Republican-controlled House that hates anything that looks like a tax, but Rifer is optimistic. "Nobody wants a fee," he concedes. "The question becomes, are you willing to respond to the problem. And if you are, then you really only have a few options."