By Kris Kitto - 05/26/09 06:13 PM EDT
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and his staff are so enthusiastic about helping congressional staffers eliminate their e-waste that they have turned to trickery to entice their colleagues to chuck their old cell phones in the back of a truck this Thursday.
Thompson, who arranged for an IT recovery company to collect retired personal electronics outside the Capitol this week, stood in front of the Cannon House Office Building one morning last week with 10 of his aides to spread word of the event.
All he had to offer those who fell for this stunt was a coupon-sized flier that read, “Don’t Let Your e-Waste Go to Waste; Employee Electronics Recycling Day.”
Leading up to the fliering push, Thompson’s communications director, Laurel Brown, promised this reporter there would be life-sized dancing computers and BlackBerrys on the street corner to get people excited about properly disposing of their old electronics.
The congressman’s staffers instead wore white T-shirts emblazoned with iron-on graphics of a fax machine, a printer, a computer motherboard and other electronics beneath the phrase “Erase Your E-Waste.”
Other guerrilla tactics they contemplated or executed included empty compliments — “Hey, man, nice tie; recycle electronics!” — plays to the curious-minded — “Come here, I’ve got to tell you something: Recycle electronics!” — and guilt trips — “I’m only taking [the flier] because you’re giving it to me, Carl.”
During an interview in his office a few hours later, Thompson began to divulge the ugly truths behind e-waste, at which point it became clear why he and his staffers are desperately trying to get people to stop flinging their old ditto machines into the neighborhood pond or shipping early-model antenna cell phones to China to be disassembled by 5-year olds.
“It’s a huge problem,” Thompson said in his office. “I read someplace recently that Americans dispose of 133,000 computers a day.”
Hearing that, it does make one wonder: With all the cell phones, MP3 players, personal digital assistants and laptop computers people constantly upgrade, where do electronics go to die?
Thompson — along with a small group of other members of the House — has become the leader in getting e-waste on Congress’s legislative agenda and is now exporting his successful district e-waste pickups to Washington for the first recycling event of its kind on Capitol Hill.
The six-term congressman became interested in the issue during his first or second year in Congress, he recalled.
“I was on my way to Dulles [International Airport] to fly back to the district on a Thursday or Friday, and there was an NPR story about all this e-waste,” he said. “And so I said, ‘That’s a real problem; I wonder how they’re dealing with it.’ ”
The problem is one of the easy-to-understand-yet-hard-to-solve variety. We’ve known for a while that the old electronics contain lead, mercury, cadmium and other substances to make up “a witch’s brew of toxic materials,” as Thompson called it in a 2005 statement. But we have yet to see next to the newspaper recycling cans a bin that says, “Place your old keyboards here.” Many old electronics are shipped to developing countries, where they might sit in dumps or get torched in a bonfire.
That’s where Thompson’s now-famous pickups come in. Growing up, the congressman worked for the local garbage man, whom he credits for being a recycling pioneer in their northern California community. They would pick up the wet garbage — the “swill,” they called it — from restaurants and other establishments around town and feed it to the garbage man’s pigs.
As a politician, Thompson for years has been putting on what he calls “pasta feeds,” low-dollar fundraising events he holds around his district. For the past five years, in addition to getting a mountain of spaghetti and meatballs, attendees have the chance to drop off their e-waste with a company that refurbishes or recycles the materials. Thompson says he can get up to 800 people at these events, and a few years ago, he remembers a two mile-long line of people waiting to drop off their old electronics. Thompson says his district collection events have brought in 500 tons of old computers, radios, televisions and other electronics.
“There’s probably a number of people we saw today — and we know that there’s people all over the Hill and all over town — that have e-waste in their possession,” Thompson said after handing out nearly 500 fliers for the collection event.
Where the going gets rough is on the legislative side. Thompson and Reps. Gene Green (D-Texas), Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) have come together as Congress’s E-waste Working Group, but the rules of the 111th Congress dissolved the Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee that previously had jurisdiction over e-waste, and at least one key environmental group, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, opposes the legislative solution the lawmakers have come up with because it allows companies to continue shipping e-waste overseas if they can prove the waste will be properly refurbished.
“I watched last Congress, and nothing happened [on the issue],” Green said in a phone interview. “This is a work in progress.”
At last week’s morning canvassing, Thompson stopped Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) as he walked by, shoving a flier in his hand while offering a pleasant “How are you?” and informing Ortiz that he hoped to let other colleagues know about the e-waste pickup before Congress broke for recess.
Thompson also dangled one last publicity stunt for the event, offering up Brown to wear a hat with a computer keyboard attached to it. Whether that will be true or false remains to be seen — don’t be too trusting of this group — but the congressman does have high hopes for Thursday’s event.
“I just want to get the word out that this [pickup] is going to be valuable,” he said.
Steve Stoddard contributed to this article.
Rep. Mike Thompson’s (D-Calif.) office has organized an e-waste drop-off Thursday for congressional staffers.
What: Personal computer-related devices, office equipment and small electronics (including AC adapters, cables, cameras, cell phones, DVD players, external drives, fax machines, keyboards, memory cards, mice, monitors, motherboards, MP3 players, PDAs, personal computers, printers, processors, RAM, routers, scanners, servers, server cabinets, TVs up to 40 inches, VCRs and wireless cards).
When: Thursday, May 28,
8 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Where: The intersection of Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, north of the Reflecting Pool
For more information, go to: Housenet, http://housenet.house.gov
IT recovery company Redemtech will collect the old electronics. Redemtech will refurbish recoverable electronics and donate them to Horton’s Kids, a local youth tutoring and mentoring organization.
Rep. Mike Thompson’s (D-Calif.) e-waste pickup Thursday is for congressional staffers’ personal items, but he and his colleagues are also keeping an eye on how Congress gets rid of the old computers and other electronic equipment lawmakers and aides use.
Not surprisingly, the process is bureaucratic; the House Chief Administrative Office, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) and the General Services Administration (GSA) all play a role in getting rid of congressional e-waste.
AoC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said used computer equipment is either donated to schools and nonprofit organizations or sent to GSA to be recycled.
Finally, GSA spokesman Robert Lesino said used equipment that comes from Congress is first offered to other federal agencies, then to state and city government agencies. If neither of those groups takes the equipment, GSA donates it to schools. If the equipment is unusable, it is sold at auction, he said.
Thompson said he is pleased with how he sees the government handling e-waste.
“We’ve looked into that, and they’re pretty responsible,” he said.