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.
The debate over what to do with outdated electronics, or e-waste, was highlighted following the recent release of a report entitled “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia.”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.
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.