Commentary: California's electronic waste program is ripe for abuse

It's often a risk for government to take on a problem that could be better left to the private sector. The latest illustration of the pitfalls was uncovered by The Sacramento Bee's investigation of California's electronic waste program.

The 5-year-old state-run effort has paid more than $320 million to collect and recycle computer monitors, televisions and other waste from the digital age. But by dangling all that money, the program has become a lucrative magnet for fraud. Unscrupulous operators have bought e-waste on the cheap in Arizona and other nearby states, smuggled it into California and made millions by passing it off as coming from our homes and businesses.

Reporter Tom Knudson also found that state officials have known about the increasing fraud for years, but have done little to arrest it.

That has to change.

Otherwise, California consumers will continue to get stiffed. They fund the program through a fee ranging from $8 to $25 tacked onto the price of new monitors and televisions. So they're entitled to be confident that it's their obsolete equipment – about 3.3 million monitors and TVs a year – that is being recycled.

It's telling that none of the 22 states that followed California with e-waste laws created a government-run program. Instead, they required private industry to deal with the waste and pay for recycling, as then-Gov. Gray Davis wanted to do in 2002. Opposition from the TV and tech industry, however, killed that approach.

Now that California is deeply invested in the program, it must quickly fix it to spot fraud and punish those responsible.

While the state has rejected about $23 million in fraudulent claims, it wrongly paid as much as $30 million in other ineligible claims, industry and state officials told The Bee. And while the state has investigated more than two dozen e-waste companies for fraud just in the past two years, not a single one has been prosecuted or fined.

To read the complete editorial, visit www.sacbee.com.