Mountains of broken TVs, obsolete computer monitors and outdated laptops that once piled up in California's garages, attics and basements have achieved a milestone.
The state's electronic-waste recycling program has reached its 1 billionth pound of unwanted electronics. That's more than any other state has recycled — and amounts to roughly 20 million TVs and computers kept out of landfills.
"In the six short years this program has been operating, California has really gotten on board with e-waste recycling," said Jeff Hunts, e-waste program manager for the state Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. "People are understanding it's hazardous and needs to be managed responsibly."
Despite the impressive numbers, experts say California's e-waste efforts still have at least three significant shortcomings.
In the years since California became the first state to pass an e-waste law, 24 other states have passed similar laws. But California remains the only state that charges consumers to fund a government-run program by paying recycling fees every time they buy a TV, laptop or monitor. The other states make the industry pay to set up recycling programs. Many set quotas for the amount each company must recycle, based on how many monitors, printers or other equipment it sells, with fines for violators.
Second, California's law only funds recycling of TVs, laptops and computer monitors and requires that they be recycled in state. Other devices, such as old VCRs, printers and hard drives, are not covered and sometimes end up in developing nations like India or China, where children breaking them apart are exposed to mercury, lead, cadmium and other toxics.
"It's admirable that so much material has been collected and that it stayed out of landfills," said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a San Jose environmental group. "But it's only a small baby step to where we need to go."
California needs to expand its program and embrace the producer take-back model of other states, she said.
"I give California's program a D, maybe a D-plus. It's not fair to customers," Davis said. "And as many pounds of computers as they have collected, there are an equal number of loopholes for other products that aren't properly recycled."
After millions of computers were discarded leading up to the Jan. 1, 2000, "Y2K" scare, environmentalists turned up the pressure for a state law in California.
In 2002, former state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto) wrote a bill that would have required consumers to pay a fee when they bought new computers or TVs — similar to the deposit they pay under the state's bottle and can recycling law — with the money funding a recycling program.
But former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it, saying it should be the computer industry's responsibility.
Sher tried to negotiate a compromise with Hewlett-Packard Co. and other computer makers, but talks fell apart. So he pushed through a similar bill to his first one, and on Sept. 24, 2003, facing a recall election in two weeks that would drive him from office, Davis signed it.
Today, the law requires consumers to pay a fee of $6 to $10, depending on the size of the screen, when they buy a new TV, laptop or computer monitor. That money funds a state-run program that pays 39 cents a pound to 52 recycling companies and 590 collection organizations, which include private companies and charitable groups such as Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army.
"I'm perfectly fine with it," said Brent Anderson, of Morgan Hill, Calif., who was shopping for big-screen TVs in San Jose.
He said the first time he encountered the recycling fee a few years back, he was a bit miffed to have to pony up an extra $10. But considering that the unit he and his father, Jim, were eyeing retails for more than $700, Anderson didn't believe that it was too onerous a bite. After all, he said, "There's a lot of stuff to recycle in here."
Whereas a decade ago people had to either throw their old computer in the garbage or pay up to $25 each to find a recycler to take it, today schools, civic organizations and scout troops regularly hold fundraisers asking for the old machines. California's program has paid out $436 million since 2005.
After California's law passed, however, retail giants fought similar consumer-pay laws in other states. Now environmental groups and the electronics industry both want a national law but can't agree on how strict it should be — or who should pay.
"We have to comply with a patchwork of 25 different state requirements. It's a national problem. It deserves a national approach," said Walter Alcorn, vice president for environmental affairs at the Consumer Electronics Assn., an industry group.
New devices come on the market every year. So even though the state collects roughly 5 million used TVs and computers a year, Californians replace those by buying about 9 million a year.
"Like with anything, you can back-seat drive, but you've got to hand it to them. They got in and got a program started early," said Ken Taggart, vice president of ECS Refining, an electronics recycling company in Santa Clara, Calif. "But it could take some tweaks and become an even better program."
Rogers writes for the San Jose Mercury News/McClatchy.
San Jose Mercury News staff writer Peter Delevett contributed to this report.