Starting next year, computer makers that want to do business in Maryland must kick in up to $5,000 annually to help recycle their products under a new state law designed to cope with the roughly 60,000 tons of "electronic waste" that pile up in Maryland each year.
The law, signed last month by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), affects only makers of desktop and laptop computers, including monitors, but it hints at expanding to include television sets in the near future.
Some of the country's largest computer makers helped shape the legislation and gave it the final nod, though many did so grudgingly. At least one of them, Hewlett-Packard Co., which has 20 percent of the U.S. market, has not decided if it will pass the cost on to consumers.
"It's too early to say" if Marylanders will get charged extra, said David Isaacs, the company's director of government and public policy. "The bill just passed, and we haven't determined our plans yet."
By adopting the legislation, Maryland thrust itself to the forefront of a debate on how to deal with the high-tech gadgetry that U.S. consumers jettison each year -- including about 50 million computers and 130 million cell phones.
While the federal government grapples with the issue -- recently issuing contracts to help agencies deal with their mountains of used technology -- a few states have weighed in. California, Maine and now Maryland are the first to experiment with cost-sharing arrangements for recycling environmentally damaging electronics. But they embrace different approaches.
California places the financial burden on consumers, charging a $6 to $10 disposal fee on every computer and television purchased. Maine puts the onus on manufacturers, demanding they pay the full cost of recycling their computers or televisions and pick up a share of the recycling tab for products of unknown origin.
Computer manufacturers gave a collective sigh of relief when Maryland, after years of debate, rejected Maine's concept and opted for a relatively small annual fee.
"It's much more reasonable," Andy Kendzie, a spokesman for International Business Machines Corp., said of Maryland's legislation. "We're very happy with it."
Retailers were ecstatic that Maryland did not follow California's lead and left them out of the mix.
"A fee at the point of sale would have stifled the retail market here," said Jeffrie Zellmer, legislative director of the Maryland Retailers Association. "A consumer in Bethesda would just pop across one of the bridges and shop in Virginia."
And environmentalists were pleased Maryland took what they view as a step in the right direction.
"There was an opportunity to do much more," said Brad Heavner, director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group, who questions whether this program will raise enough money to make a difference. "But at least we're moving forward with something."
Under Maryland's law, a manufacturer who produced more than 1,000 computers on average each year since 2002 must register with the state and pay an initial fee of $5,000 by Jan. 1.
In subsequent years, manufacturers can pay a reduced fee of $500 if they have a "takeback" program that allows consumers to return computers for recycling or refurbishing at no cost.
The "no cost" part creates issues for firms such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM, which take back computers if consumers pay for shipping.
Computer makers can choose to recycle the products themselves, hire a firm to do it for them, or simply pay the requisite $5,000.
But the state does not know how much money it will raise because it has yet to figure out how many companies the program covers. Officials acknowledge that their initial estimate of $400,000, however, was probably off target.
"We've heard anywhere from 40 to 200" might qualify, said Hilary Miller, head of the recycling and operations program at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Miller said she's compiling a list of potential candidates by conferring with regulators in Maine and perusing newspaper advertisements. "But I'm not positive how many of them manufacture computers or monitors," she said. "And for those that do, the burden is with them to register with us."
Mark Sharp, group manager of the environmental department at Panasonic Corp. of North America, said he doubts the state will raise enough money to cover its costs.
"It's an imperfect approach," Sharp said. "They will not collect that much money. They would get more if they opted for a fee at retail. . . . It's not a long-term solution."
Panasonic, which makes laptops sold mostly to government and law enforcement, does not have a takeback program and must decide how it wants to proceed in Maryland, Sharp said.
Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), who introduced the legislation, said getting a plan that all the stakeholders would embrace was like squeezing a water balloon. "Where you squeezed, it bulged out somewhere else," he said.
The goal was to get a program up and running.
"The alternative is to do nothing," Morhaim said. "It's a first step in the right direction, and we'll continue to refine it."