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W.Va. committee: allow electronics in landfills

David Gutman, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- A West Virginia Senate committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to lift a ban on disposing of electronic devices in landfills.

The bill would reverse part of a 2010 law that established a litter control program in the state. Since then, it has been illegal to throw any electronics with screens larger than 4 inches into a landfill. Similar laws are in place in 20 states. At least eight states have enacted bans in the last two years.

Almost all electronics with screens contain toxic chemicals or metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Laws regulating their disposal are intended to keep those toxic chemicals from leaching into groundwater.

The 2010 law set up a recycling program for those devices, which include TV and computer monitors, tablets and many smartphones. Supporters of the proposal to reverse the ban say the recycling program has not been effective. Sen. Craig Blair, one of the bill's sponsors said people have not been using the recycling program and are instead leaving TVs and computers on the side of the road.

"I'd love to see recycling," Blair said. "But I'd rather have hazardous materials in the landfills than I would on the sides of mountains or in the creeks."

The rapid growth in flat-screen TVs and monitors has made recycling less profitable. Older, larger TVs had components made with leaded glass that could be broken down, recycled, and reused. Flat-screen devices are less likely to have lead, but they have other toxic materials that are more difficult to repurpose.

Greg Sayre, a lobbyist for recyclers and garbage haulers, said the state lacks the infrastructure to implement the recycling program. He said there are multiple public and private recycling options in cities, but rural communities must rely on garbage collectors and landfills.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has had success with one-day electronic drop-off recycling programs. A recycling drive in Kanawha County in September collected 35 tons of old electronics, according to DEP. A similar event in Logan County collected 25 tons of electronics. And at least five counties in the state continuously accept old electronics at their recycling facilities. At least 80 electronics manufacturers will take back their used devices, according to the DEP website.

Sayre also disputed the idea that electronic devices in landfills can be dangerous.

"This is dangerous?" Sayre asked incredulously, pointing at an iPhone. "They have lead, but is the lead volatile? I'd say most people would tell you it's not. It's toxic but is it volatile? Meaning if you bury a television set out in your yard, is it going to leach?"

Most studies have found that old electronics do leach out toxic substances. The Environmental Protection Agency says that when electronics are buried in landfills, studies suggest that the amount of toxins they leach out is not dangerous to human health. The EPA also says it strongly supports keeping electronics out of landfills.