Bill would fund electronics recycling

A House bill would provide grants for researching new ways to sort plastic and make electronics last longer.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) says he has seven or eight computers sitting in his basement, including an “original Macintosh.” Ehlers doesn’t want the outdated technology to end up in a landfill, so like many people he holds on to the unneeded equipment.

Ehlers shared his personal story today before a hearing by House Science and Technology Committee concerning electronic waste. Experts testified about the challenges and successes associated with recycling electronics.

A draft of the Electronic Waste Research and Development bill, meant to address some of the major problems electronic recyclers face, was discussed.

One of the most harmful practices today is exporting electronic waste to developing countries where people use primitive methods to strip out valuable commodities such as copper, said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) the committee's chairman. The practice endangers people’s lives and pollutes the areas they live in, he said.

“This bill provides a mechanism for bringing together academic researchers and the industry partners,” Gordon said. “It is important that we are able to implement the new technologies to reduce waste and manufacture products with environmentally friendly materials.”

For example, the bill would fund research on technology used to sort plastics. Researchers want to learn how to make mixed recycled plastics more suitable for use in new products.

One of the best ways to deal with unwanted computers is to refurbish them, said Willie Cade, chief executive officer of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers in Chicago.

The most complicated part of computer refurbishment is installing a fresh, reliable and legal operating system across a broad spectrum of hardware, Cade said. His company worked with Microsoft for seven years, and in 2000 the Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher Program was launched.

“My company was one of the first five organizations that Microsoft authorized to reinstall their Windows operating system on refurbished computers in the U.S.,” he said. “Since then, we have refurbished over 40,000 computers for schools, not-for-profits, and in homes of children at risk.”

The bill would provide grants for product design and construction and other tools and techniques to extend the lifecycle of electronic devices, including methods to promote their safe reuse.

Investments in recycling programs have the potential prevent pollution, create jobs and save resources, said Valerie Thomas, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

“Keeping activities such as sorting and reprocessing of electronics in the urban areas where they have been used and collected can provide significant economic and social benefits,” she said. “These benefits could be significantly enhanced if plans for recycling and refurbishment were incorporated into the design of the product and its supply chain.”

The bill would provide grants for product design and construction to help disassemble and recycle electronic waste. There are also grants for creating tools and methods to aid in assessing the environmental impacts of the production of electronic devices and electronic waste recycling and disposal.

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