U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   07/26/2005
Statement of Honorable Mike Thompson
United States Representative from the State of California
An Oversight Hearing on Electronics Waste

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me here today to comment briefly on electronic waste – or “e-waste”. I appreciate Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Boxer allowing me to be a part of this hearing on the subject of e-waste, an issue with which I’ve been involved since I first came to Congress.

Electronic devices are becoming smaller and lighter, but they also are creating an ever-growing environmental and waste disposal problem. That’s because it’s often cheaper and more convenient to buy a new PC or cell phone than to upgrade an old one.

Today, the average lifespan of a computer is only two years and Americans are disposing of 3,000 tons of computers each day. Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, recently estimated that the typical household could expect to discard approximately 68 electronic items over the next 20 years including: 20 cell phones, 10 computers, 7 TVs, 7 VCRs or DVD players and several answering machines, printers and CD players.

While e-waste contains a number of valuable materials that are recoverable – including aluminum, gold, silver and other metals, it also contains a witches’ brew of toxic material – such as lead, mercury and cadmium. If not properly disposed of these toxic materials can cause health and environmental problems. For example, the glass of a typical computer monitor contains six pounds of lead. When this glass is crushed in a landfill, the lead is released into the environment.

There’s a Native American proverb about stewardship, which says: “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” To give you an idea of the potential legacy we are leaving future generations, the National Safety Council has projected that approximately 300 million computers are obsolete. If all 300 million units were discarded, this would involve nearly one billion pounds of lead, two million pounds of cadmium and 400,000 pounds of mercury.

Residents in my District are stalwart stewards of the environment, recycling a healthy amount of e-waste compared to other parts of the country. Last year alone, Napa County collected 214 tons of e-waste, approximately 3 pounds for each of the County’s 136,000 residents. In comparison, Boston collected 330 tons and San Diego collected 270 tons.

But while Napa is tackling the problem of e-waste at a local level, we’ve done little to address the problem on a national scale. Some retailers and manufacturers have created voluntary recycling programs, but they are too small in scope to have a significant impact on the e-waste stream. Without a national recycling infrastructure consumers and businesses today are left with few choices for getting rid of their old computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. Most people shove them in a spare closet or corner and wait. When people do try to dispose of their e-waste responsibly, all too often it is shipped overseas. There, it and its toxins can land in riverbeds or in the hands of unprotected workers.

The buildup of e-waste on the local and state level has led California, Maine and Maryland to implement their own e-waste laws – each very different from the others. Twenty-six additional states are also considering e-waste legislation. As states continue to develop their own approaches the need for a federal solution only grows. Without federal action both consumers and businesses will have to contend with an unmanageable patchwork of state laws.

My colleagues – Representatives Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) and Mary Bono (R-CA) – and I formed the bipartisan Congressional E-Waste Working Group with the objective of investigating possible federal e-waste solutions and educating Members of Congress about the issue. At our first event, a forum entitled, “E-Waste: Is a National Approach Necessary?” we invited all stakeholders, including consumers, manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, environmentalists and nonprofits. All agreed on the value of a national approach to e-waste.

Again, I thank the subcommittee for bringing much needed attention to this issue and to gathering expert testimony on the problem of e-waste. I – and other members of the E-Waste