Recycling America

Editor’s Note: this is the third part of a three part series. The first part is E-Waste: A Growing Problem; the second part is Recycling Europa.

Recyclers, Industry Deal with Cost of Electronic Waste and Pollution

While the European Union prepares to legislate electronics recycling mandates within the next few years, there are nascent efforts to develop some sort of national infrastructure here in the United States.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!The debate over what to do with outdated electronics, or e-waste, was highlighted following the recent release of a report entitled “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia.” The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) and San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) coordinated the field investigation and ensuing report. The report found that much of the obsolete electronics collected domestically for recycling is actually shipped abroad, typically to China, where it is disposed of or recycled with little or no regard to environmental and worker health and safety. The report also indirectly illustrates the difficulties the recycling industry faces here in the United States, namely finding a way to recycle e-waste profitably yet responsibly.

On these shores, efforts to address electronics recycling are several years behind those of Europe. But the e-waste ball has begun to roll in the United States. Last April the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) was formed. NEPSI comprises a number of members from the federal government, the electronics and recycling industries, as well as environmental groups.

Xerox Corp. cleans equipment to be remanufactured using an environmentally friendly process
Electronics companies have made some progress on environmental issues, such as Xerox Corp., shown here cleaning equipment to be remanufactured using an environmentally friendly process that also has reduced overall cleaning costs. But issues remain.

Among the groups are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Electronics Industry Alliance (EIA) and SVTC, all of which have found themselves at odds with one another over the issue of e-waste. “The infrastructure for collecting, reusing and recycling electronics in the United States has not kept pace with this growing waste stream, and the number of electronic products entering the waste stream is projected to increase dramatically unless reuse and recycling options expand,” said a NEPSI statement on its Internet homepage.

Last month’s NEPSI meeting in Tampa, Fla., was the most involved to date, concentrating on financing models for electronics collection, reuse and recycling, NEPSI reported. “The group made important and significant progress in the discussions related to a financing system, particularly in understanding the various concerns amongst stakeholders related to front-end vs. end-of-life fees,” Gary Davis, NEPSI coordinator, said in a statement.

“We should all be focusing on our core competency,” suggested Kerry Fennelly, director of communications for the EIA. The EIA has a short-term recycling grant program in place designed in part to evaluate different cost models of recycling. “There’s a role for the recyclers; there’s roles for the municipalities and a role for the consumer,” she added.

But the question of who should bear the cost—electronics manufacturers, consumers, recyclers—is a key issue for both the electronics and the recycling industry. And how to do it cost-effectively is a problem that’s troubled the recycling industry as a whole throughout its history and electronics recycling in particular. Should it be built into the cost of the product? Is the public willing to pay a fee? “I don’t think Joe Public is willing to pay a fee,” said Richard Campbell, senior VP of DMC, the Electronics Recycling Co.

These are questions that electronics recyclers are grappling with themselves in a business that is still in its infancy, Campbell noted. “Companies are realizing there is a cost involved,” he added. “It’s no different than tires or car batteries or oil filters. All of those have a built-in cost to get rid of them.”

This is the only way to recycle profitably yet responsibly and not merely ship it overseas, Campbell and others in the recycling industry said. DMC, a member of NEPSI, welcomed “Exporting Harm” because it highlighted the problems it and the industry faces. “To us, these articles and initiatives are a good thing for DMC because we’ve been trying to do it the right way since we opened our doors six years ago,” he explained.

It does all of its recycling, refurbishing and materials recovery domestically. It guarantees its customers that none of the e-waste it processes will end up in landfills.

Yet it is in domestic landfills or overseas destinations such as those highlighted in “Exporting Harm” that household and municipal electronics often end up, according to environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “There needs to be some federal infrastructure, for sure,” Campbell said. DMC is currently working with a large nonprofit organization to develop a program to recycle household electronics economically. “It’s very low profit. We have to deal in volume,” Campbell explained.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Recycling Europa

Editor’s Note: this is the second part of a three part series. The first part is E-waste: A Growing Problem; the third part is Recycling America.

Will EU Legislation Solve E-Waste Problems, Or Are They Here to Stay?

While U.S.-based environmental groups hail environmental-related electronics recycling and manufacturing initiatives under consideration in the European Union (EU), industry groups question whether the initiatives are viable for the electronics industry.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!While this debate is ongoing, the latest chapter follows the release of a report entitled “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia.” The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) and San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) coordinated the field investigation. The ensuing report found that much of the obsolete electronics collected domestically for recycling is actually shipped abroad, typically to China, where it is disposed of or recycled with little or no regard to environmental and worker health and safety.

The European Solution

It’s been a long, bureaucratic road spanning more than a decade, but in June 2001, the European Commission came out with two directives titled Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction on the Use of Certain Hazardous Materials (RoHS).

WEEE in its current form requires manufacturers to collect, treat, recycle and reuse the electronic products they produce—not only new electronics, but older electronics as well, those that have existed since the beginning of the EU. RoHS bans the use of lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury and certain flame-retardant materials sometime toward the end of the decade.

The initiatives still have several bureaucratic hurdles to clear before they’re adopted. Observers don’t expect the WEEE and RoHS legislative process to be complete until February of next year, after which member countries will have 18 months in which to comply by passing new laws or amending existing laws.

Whatever form WEEE and RoHS eventually take, industry observers here and abroad say it’s only a matter of time until they become a fact of life.

Environmental groups, including the authors of the “Exporting Harm” report, welcome the WEEE and RoHS directives as solutions to the problems outlined in the report and would like to see similar laws put into effect in the United States. SVTC and BAN, among others, would also like to see the U.S. government ratify the 1989 Basel Convention treaty and its 1994 amendment.

The Basel Convention, ratified by 148 countries, calls for all member countries to reduce hazardous waste exports to a minimum and to deal with hazardous waste disposal within their own borders. The United States signed the Basel Convention treaty; it has yet to ratify it.

The 1994 amendment calls for a ban of hazardous waste export from certain countries, including all member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation Development (OECD), which includes the United States, to certain lesser-developed Basel Convention member nations, among them China. Twenty-seven countries have ratified the ban amendment so far, including most of Europe and China.

In “Exporting Harm,” SVTC and BAN criticize the electronics industry and particularly the federal government for exempting e-waste from hazardous waste laws in order to encourage export.

“Rather than working to fulfill the global obligation of national self-sufficiency in waste management set forth in the Basel Convention, the United States is actually investing time and money in developing a program to establish minimum criteria for environmentally sound management for countries to follow. The United States then hopes to eventually promote exports to developing countries that meet these minimum criteria. This work is being heavily promoted by the United States and is being formulated within the OECD’s framework.

“The goal of all of this is to be able to continue exporting wastes to developing countries in Asia and elsewhere via the password of recycling,” the report states.

An Industry Rebuttal

U.S.-based electronics consortia counter that much of what is sold here is fabricated in Asia and produced by Asian-based companies.

“We do not support any recycling operation that fails to achieve proper safety and environmental standards. … To facilitate sustainability, exporting in a globalized economy needs to be a viable option. If we want to put these materials back into the manufacturing cycle … we must find cost-effective, environmentally responsible and safe ways to move and recycle electronic equipment in the global marketplace,” the Electronics Industries Alliance (EIA) said in a statement.

As for the European directives, the EIA’s sister organization, the American Electronics Association (AEA), has been heavily involved in lobby efforts as the directives move through the EU legislative process.

“RoHS has been more problematic to us as a high-tech industry,” said Jennifer Guhl, director of international trade policy. It will be difficult to replace the substances cited in the RoHS, particularly lead, within the 2006 and 2008 deadlines currently being considered, Guhl said.

Another problem with the proposed RoHS ban is that no analysis is being done on the environmental impact of alternative chemistries, said the AEA.

Jason Linnell, manager of environmental affairs for the EIA, noted that removing some of the chemicals cited in RoHS also poses environmental dilemmas. Most lead-free solders, for example, have higher melting points, which require more energy to fabricate. Part of the reason LCDs are much more energy efficient than standard cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors is the use of mercury.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

E-waste: A Growing Problem

Editor’s Note: this is the first part of a three part series. The second part is Recycling Europa; the third part is Recycling America.

Report Finds U.S. Electronics Recycling Gets Shipped Overseas

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!A recent investigation revealed that much of the electronics turned over for recycling in the United States ends up in Asia, where it is either disposed of or recycled with little to no regard for environmental or worker health and safety.

The report, “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia” brought the disposal and recycling of obsolete electronics, or e-waste, to the fore, as it spawned stories in such mainstream media outlets as The New York Times. The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) and San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) coordinated the field investigation and ensuing report.

With product cycle times shrinking all along the electronics supply chain, the amount of obsolete electronics is clearly growing rapidly. “The 1999 Electronic Product Recovery And Recycling Baseline Report,” prepared by Stanford Resources Inc. for the National Safety Council, concluded that in 1998 some 20.6 million computers became obsolete in the United States alone. The report predicted that number would top 50 million by this year.

Laborer heats an aqua regia acid mixture along side a riverbank in Guiyu, China.
A laborer heats an aqua regia acid mixture along side a riverbank in Guiyu, China. The hydrochloric acid mixture is used to strip gold from chips. All waste acids and sludges are dumped into the river. The only protective equipment workers use are rubber boots and gloves.

The report from BAN and SVTC indicates that between 50 percent and 80 percent of electronics collected in the western United States for recycling is shipped overseas. “While there are many e-waste recyclers who espouse and practice sincere environmental ethics … there are many others whose recycling claims offer false solutions: recycling via export directly or indirectly through brokers,” the report stated.

BAN and SVTC acknowledge it is tough to precisely track how much e-waste is getting shipped overseas for recycling or disposal. Under the global Harmonized Tariff System, exported obsolete electronics are classified the same as new electronics. But electronics recycling industry insiders acknowledge that overseas disposal frequently occurs. “It is a big problem, and unfortunately there are no international or federal regulations on what goes on,” said Richard Campbell, senior VP of DMC. The Electronics Recycling Co. DMC is an ISO 14000-certified company that only deals with institutional and large corporate customers. It does all of its recycling and resource recovery domestically, guaranteeing customers immunity from disposal-related liability and that it won’t dispose of electronics in landfills, Campbell said.

But some companies presenting themselves as recyclers merely arrange to have waste shipped overseas, Campbell noted. He estimated that between 50 percent to 60 percent of domestic e-waste gets exported, adding that the number could be higher. “Some people make no bones about doing this,” he said. “It’s no secret it’s been going on for a long time.”

BAN and SVTC found that the bulk of e-waste exports end up in China for disposal and recycling. It is lax enforcement of laws combined with cheap labor and favorable U.S. export laws that encourage the problem, the environmental groups’ report said.

BAN investigator Clement Lam takes a soil sample along a riverside near Guiyu, China, where circuit boards were treated with acid and burned.
BAN investigator Clement Lam takes a soil sample along a riverside near Guiyu, China, where circuit boards were treated with acid and burned.

With the cooperation of environmental groups in China, Pakistan and India, BAN attempted to document the conditions under which this e-waste was being recycled or disposed as well as the conditions of the work environment of these facilities overseas. It closely examined a processing center in Guiyu, China, conducting interviews, taking video and still photographs, and taking sediment, soil and water samples in and near Guiyu.

While the groups acknowledged that the study was not a comprehensive investigation, it nevertheless uncovered significant problems in all three countries. Investigators were furthermore able to identify the source of much of the e-waste that they saw, thanks to institutional labels, markings and maintenance stickers and phone numbers on PCs and peripherals.

Investigators found significant groundwater contaminants in Guiyu, contaminants that corresponded closely to the materials found in electronics. “A tremendous amount of imported e-waste material and process residues are not recycled but simply dumped in open fields, along riverbanks, ponds, wetlands, in rivers and in irrigation ditches,” the report said.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Japan Inc. Rethinks Its Semi Strategy

Tough Economic Times Force Changes at Equipment Companies

TOKYO —  It is evident here at Semicon that Japan’s continued economic woes are changing the way Japanese equipment companies do business.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!Even in the midst of a lengthy recession, executives and analysts cling to evidence of a recovery for the latter quarters of 2002. Yet, even if this takes place, the days of Japan Inc. and its us vs. them mentality are over, and the Japanese readily acknowledge and accept this.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of this phenomenon is Canon Inc.’s embrace of two-year-old Austin metrology start-up nLine Corp. Canon announced that its sales and distribution subsidiary, Canon Sales Co., would function as a sales partner for nLine, selling its newly unveiled direct digital holography Fathom tool in Japan.

Canon Sales is the distributor for a number of third-party tools in Japan, not just Canon’s own semiconductor equipment, explained Hiroshi Shibuya, director and group executive for Canon’s semiconductor equipment sales. Many companies approach Canon’s sales arm to represent them in Japan, but they must meet very strict criteria, Shibuya said. But he found nLine’s technology impressive, suggesting that it has strong potential, and he felt that the two companies would be able to establish a mutual trust between them, he said.

Kyodai Brothers perform outside Tokyo at SEMI Japan 2001
Tradition meets Tech: The Kyodai brothers of Michinoku, Japan, played the shamisen at the opening of Semicon Japan outside of Tokyo. The Kyodai brothers are well known throughout Japan.

While it’s too early to declare a trend, perhaps, the agreement is not without precedent. At last year’s Semicon Japan, Japanese OEM giant Tokyo Electron Ltd. (TEL) announced that it would handle sales and support throughout the world for start-up NuTool Inc. and its copper electrochemical mechanical deposition tool and technology. The move raised a lot of eyebrows in the industry, but TEL heartily endorsed the Silicon Valley start-up. Tetsuro Higashi, TEL president and CEO, said that NuTool’s technology would permit the Japanese OEM to penetrate the market for interconnect process technology.

The idea of Canon’s and TEL’s embrace of American companies and technology would have seemed laughably ridiculous not too many years ago, when Japanese automobiles and electronics dominated America and there was talk that the United States would exit the chip industry all together.

Now, the roles have been reversed. Japan is struggling to move away from the troubled DRAM-dependent semiconductor business model and expand into other areas—system LSI, as opposed to system-on-a-chip, is the current buzzword on this side of the Pacific.

Canon and TEL aren’t the only ones looking west. Specialty etch tool OEM Tegal Corp. announced at the show joint development partnerships with three Japanese microelectronic companies. They look to Tegal for manufacturing process expertise in order to enter the market for nonvolatile memory.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based OEMs August Technology, Ultratech Stepper and Kulicke & Soffa, and European OEM Unaxis Balzers announced that they were joining Japanese tech and OEM companies Dainippon Screen Manufacturing, Ebara and Casio Computer Co. in the newly created Advanced Packaging and Interconnect Alliance (APiA). APiA wants to accelerate the development and implementation of commercially viable advanced packaging technologies.

Semi Japan 2001 in Chiba, outside Tokyo
While participation may be down, particularly among other Asian countries, many exhibitors expressed surprise at the number of Japanese customers at Semicon Japan particularly interested in advanced technologies, even though there is little, if any talk of equipment purchases at the current time.

Many of the OEM executives involved in these partnerships noted that as chip technology becomes more complex, it becomes more costly to invest. While Tegal’s Japanese subsidiary has been established in Japan for 16 years, its new partnerships weren’t struck solely on Tegal’s reputation. The Japanese economy has been hurting for so long that it has created opportunities for foreign companies to become more involved in the domestic Japanese semiconductor business, said Jim McKibben, VP of worldwide marketing and sales for Petaluma, Calif.-based Tegal.

This trend may be most dramatically evident in Japan, but the phenomenon isn’t limited to this side of the Pacific, suggested Mike Parodi, Tegal chairman, president and CEO. “I see a change in the complexion of the industry … It’s driving relationships that wouldn’t have occurred before,” he said.

The business climate has changed so much here, that some U.S. OEM executives are openly wondering what will happen to the Japanese chipmakers during the next upturn. With investment in technology seemingly at an all-time low in tech-hungry Japan, they question if the Japanese will be able to compete with the global market, or if they will eventually be forced to exit not just DRAM, but the chip market altogether.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Crossing the Cultural Divide, Part 2

Editor’s Note: this is the second part of a two-part series. Here is the first part of Crossing the Cultural Divide.

Japanese Overcoming Nationalism on Both Sides of Pacific Ocean

TOKYO — As the semiconductor industry helps the world become a smaller place, it has suffered the growing pains of the very changes it helped foment.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!Those growing pains involve transitions that haven’t always been easy for companies on either side of the Pacific. Nevertheless, the United States and Japan, two of the world’s economic powerhouses, have each managed to learn from the other as they head into the 21st century.

By the 1970s Japan had emerged from its post World War II rebuilding period as an economic giant. It took what it had learned from America and put it to good use, noted Kiyoshi Miyasaka, senior managing director for Tokyo-based Advantest Corp.’s automated test equipment and handler interface business groups. Forced by economic necessity to respond, American industry in turn looked to its perceived nemesis in the 1980s in order to learn.

“Americans were so clever to combine American ways with Japanese ways,” Miyasaka said, adding that in the 1990s, U.S. corporations managed to surpass their competition outside the United States by incorporating not only Japanese but also European business practices to become truly global entities.

“For myself, I’m thinking about how to mix the cultures not only from the States, but from the European people and the Indian people as well,” Miyasaka said.

It is often a dilemma for companies like Advantest, which really have no choice but to grow beyond their country’s borders if they wish to continue to grow. “Fortunately or unfortunately, 70 percent of our sales comes from foreign trade,” explained Toshio Maruyama, executive managing director and senior vice president of Advantest’s automated test equipment sales division.

In theory, business should be business regardless of borders. After all, Japanese chipmakers face the same market demands and problems that their U.S. counterparts do, such as lowering the cost of test. “Quality and price are the same. In that sense, there is no difference,” Maruyama said. “To my mind … it’s seamless. Business is business. The product is the same. That’s my message to my staff,” he added.

Japanese executives from Advantest and Tokyo Electron.

Following that belief, in April 1999 Advantest consolidated its global sales force, both foreign and domestic, and began directing its international subsidiaries to develop localized support and R&D In addition, Advantest instituted global accounting several years ago. The company has also outlined a five-year goal: to offer the same product price and the same level of customer support anywhere in the world.

But theories face challenges when put into practice. One of the biggest challenges Japanese companies must overcome while doing business with American and other foreign customers is a nationalistic bias — its own as well as that of foreign corporations.

Chipmakers, regardless of which side of the Pacific they are on, often prefer a local tool supplier, their logic being that a local supplier can offer better customer support. Also, Japanese executives point out that foreign customers tend to question if a domestic supplier might give preference to a domestic customer over a foreign one. At one time, this was probably the case no matter on what side of the Pacific a company did business.

So, just as American companies have often had to establish Japanese subsidiaries in order to break into Japanese markets, Japanese companies have had to do the same in order to penetrate American and other foreign markets. It has become a matter of providing a competitive level of service as well as overcoming bias. “An important point is not just selling hardware and software, but we have to support it,” Maruyama said. “The important point is to support the customer. That has to be localized.”

The largest Japanese tool supplier, Tokyo Electron Ltd. (TEL), is even taking its operations one step further. The company is locating certain manufacturing operations in the United States. Tetsuro Higashi, TEL’s chief executive officer and president, noted that the nature of the relationship between chipmaker and tool supplier is very close. In order to penetrate the market in the country that spawned the semiconductor industry, “we need a very deep root in the United States,” he said. “But it takes time.”

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.