US Congress considering electronic waste tax

In an effort to control electronic waste the US congress may impose a national 'e-fee', a recycling charge that would be paid just like a sales tax on laptop PCs, computer monitors, televisions and other electronic devices.

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Growth of electronic waste may lead to 'e-fee' on devices

In an effort to control electronic waste the US congress may impose a national "e-fee," a recycling charge that would be paid just like a sales tax on laptop PCs, computer monitors, televisions and other electronic devices.

Democrat Congressman Mike Thompson introduced legislation that would impose a fee, amounting to up to $10 (£5), on electronic equipment, last month. The bill, called the National Computer Recycling Act was first introduced several years ago but not adopted. This time, Thompson's bill may not end up in the recycle bin.

Four US states – California, Washington, Maryland and Maine – have approved electronics recycling laws and another 21, as well as Puerto Rico, are considering similar measures, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). The adoption of the state laws, which have varying requirements, has put increasing pressure on Congress to create a national, uniform plan to deal with electronic waste.

Thompson and fellow members of the Congressional E-Waste Working Group met in September 2006 with IT vendors, resellers and equipment recyclers to get ideas. Proposals from them are due as early as this week, said Anne Warden, a spokeswoman for Thompson.

Electronics makers and resellers have yet to agree on a method for paying the cost of recycling devices that can contain mercury and lead. Nationwide, that cost would amount to about $300 million (£153m) per year, said Richard Goss, vice-president of environmental affairs at the Electronic Industries Alliance, which represents 1,300 companies. Goss said he expects business and home users to pay the recycling bill.

Thompson's legislation is modelled after California's law, which imposes an advance recycling fee ranging from $6 (£3.06) to $10 (£5.09), on electronic devices. The retailer or reseller keeps 3 per cent to cover its costs of collecting the fee and the rest goes to the state, which disburses the money to collectors and recyclers at a rate of $0.48 (£0.25) per pound.

Maine, which also has electronics recycling laws, doesn't charge an upfront recycling fee at the time of purchase. Instead, manufacturers are responsible for the recycling costs. Local municipalities collect the electronics devices, which then go to a state-approved private company for recycling, according to Carole Cifrino, an environmental specialist at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Under Maine's system, once a product such as a laptop is collected, the manufacturer is identified and sent a bill for the disposal costs, which range from $0.19 (£0.09) to $0.42 (£0.21) per pound. If a hardware maker has gone out of business or can't be identified, the cost of disposal is spread out between all manufacturers. "I think that Maine has been very proactive in trying to reduce the toxicity of waste going into landfills and incinerators," Cifrino said.

Industry groups can see pluses and minuses in the various laws. Goss, for instance, points out that under Maine's law, long-established electronics makers likely will absorb much of the disposal costs while foreign competitors and so-called white-box makers that may be short-lived could avoid paying any of the expenses.

There are no hearings scheduled yet on Thompson's federal bill and it remains to be seen how the electronics industry will influence the final proposal. But the expectation is that the topic of e-waste will generate increasing debate among lawmakers.

"I do think we're under pressure to do something, not just because of Thompson but because of what's going on in the states," said Parker Brugge, senior director and environmental counsel at the CEA.

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