Citing the growing number of consumer electronics products that wind up in landfills, Rep. John Sarbanes proposed Friday giving federal agencies $60 million over the next three years to promote recycling of gadgets and computers.
Used electronics represent a relatively small share of solid waste — about 2 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — but it's a segment that is growing quickly. Companies and households tossed between 1.9 million and 2.2 million tons of electronics in 2005. Of that, about 350,000 tons were recycled.
Discarded electronic components create environmental hazards, particularly if chemicals leach into groundwater. But many of those components can be reused, Sarbanes said, potentially reducing the rare-element imports needed to manufacture electronics.
"There's a whole national security element to this, because we don't want to be in a position where we're so dependent on these foreign interests," said the Baltimore County Democrat, who serves on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. "We can pull a lot of that back out of this material on the back end."
The Sarbanes bill would authorize the EPA to create a grant program to spur research on recycling electronics. It also calls for a study to determine the current barriers to electronics recycling.
A similar measure sponsored last year by then-Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate.
The issue has received considerable attention in Washington. This week, a pair of House Democrats reintroduced another proposal that would bar the export of some electronic equipment containing hazardous materials. Some recycling companies export discarded electronics to be salvaged in developing countries.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, created a task force last year that will make recommendations on how federal agencies should dispose of their outdated electronic gear.
Maryland is one of 25 states that have passed legislation on electronics recycling. In 2006, the General Assembly passed a law that requires companies that manufacture certain devices to pay an initial $10,000 fee to support recycling programs. Companies then pay an annual fee of $5,000 unless their leaders develop a recycling program.
Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling, said states have taken vastly different approaches on the issue, creating a patchwork of regulations that can be hard for national technology companies to follow.
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