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Most people aren’t sure what to do with old cell phones, television sets and computers. In fact, millions of people hold on to them, sticking them in a closet or an attic. But when these relics do get thrown-out they can release toxic materials into the environment and take up space in landfills. That’s why policy-makers are developing new laws to recycle electronic waste. As part of a collaboration with northeast stations Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports that many states are modeling their laws on one developed in Maine.
Maine is the second state in the nation, just behind Calfornia, to adopt an e-waste recycling law and the first to require manufacturers to pay for the cost. Maine residents can no longer get rid of old computer monitors or television sets by throwing them out. They're required to drop them off at a municipal collection site. The city or town then arranges to transport the old electronics to a state-approved recycling company like this one in Portsmouth, N.H.
"We like to say it takes people to put this stuff together, it takes people to take it apart."
Bob Nicholson is the executive vice president of Uniwaste, a company that recycles electronic scrap. Here in this warehouse, half a dozen men wearing dust masks and gloves are working on a computer disassembly line, ripping out motherboards and wires and sorting the components into boxes.
You might call this electronic end of life care. Instead of being junked, the stuff is recycled for use in other components. Each piece is carefully inventoried and tracked.
"You can see the workers there actually pull bar code data, serial numbers, anything they can find off each unit. And it helps us verify to the manufacturers that it's actually their equipment that we're recycling and that they're being charged for."
That's important since Maine's law requires manufacturers to pay for every computer monitor and TV set that's recycled. Carol Cirfino of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection says the law has teeth. Violators can face fines of $100 to $10,000 dollars per violation per day.
"We've had great compliance. We've only had one enforcement case that we've pursued and we took that all the way to a Maine court and we had a judgement against them."
Why all the fuss? Cathode ray tubes in TVs and monitors contains large amounts of lead. Matt Prindiville of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says electronic devices also contain heavy metals like mercury and cadmium which can be released into the air or water when burned in incinerators or improperly dumped in landfills.
"Prior to the e-waste law, towns were typically charging residents between $15 and $30 to drop off old computers or TV sets. Now we have saved taxpayers over $4.5 million, we've kept nearly two million pounds of lead out of the environment and we've ensured the safe recycling of over 13 million pounds of toxic electronic waste."
Seventeen states, including Rhode Island and Connecticut have passed e-waste recycling laws. And the city of New York has passed an ordinance that includes curbside pickup of some electronic waste. New York State, Vermont and Massachusetts are expected to consider e-waste legislation this year. But Prindiville says states are helpless to stop another problem: the export of toxic components to developing nations by manufacturers and recyclers.
"The pictures from some of these towns in China, India and on the coast of Africa of children picking through the toxic sea of computers and televisions, most of which have been generated from the developing world is just appalling. And now we're looking to the federal government to address the issue of export of toxic e-waste."
Meanwhile, many states are looking to Maine as a model for how to organize an electronic waste recycling program. Supporters say making manufacturers financially responsible for what happens to their products is likely an incentive for them to make electronic components that are easily dismantled and less toxic.