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The Keys to Managing E-Waste: Product Stewardship and Recycling Initiatives

Technological advancements have made our lives faster, easier and more efficient, but with the downside of increasing the proliferation of electronic waste, or e-waste.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 18 percent of the 2.25 million tons of obsolete televisions, cell phones and computers in 2007 were recycled; the remainder was disposed of in landfills. The problem is forecasted to peak in 2015, when 73 million metric tons of electronics will be ready for end-of-life disposal and could risk ending up in landfills and solid waste streams across the globe.

Collective concern from businesses, municipalities, environmentalists and manufacturers over the hazards of e-waste has led to a search for ways to reduce its environmental impact. With a greater need for programs that handle collection and disposal of used electronics products in a way that is safest for the environment, product stewardship is emerging as a viable and cost-efficient strategy for doing so, placing the responsibility for a product's proper disposal on the shoulders of the company that makes or sells the product, or even upon the purchaser. The concept can be applied to a range of products, from paints and prescription medication to batteries and computers.

While the aspiration of the product stewardship movement is always the same -- zero waste -- its application can take different forms. In some cases, an advanced deposit fee is added to the purchase price so that the end-user pays for the collection, disposal and recycling of the product. An example is the bottle deposit that consumers pay in certain states on glass, plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Or, it could be structured as an industry-funded takeback program where used products are accepted for recycling at no cost to the end-user. Despite the different approaches, the primary goal is to divert waste from landfills and lessen the negative environmental impact of consumerism.

As product stewardship has expanded in recent years to include electronics, governments are looking to this concept as a strategy du jour for e-waste collection. For example, federal legislation known as the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act requires rechargeable battery manufacturers to establish a free and convenient recycling program for nickel cadmium rechargeable batteries. State governments are also joining the efforts, with industry-implemented, state-approved rechargeable battery recycling programs required in California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, New Jersey and Vermont. Similar legislation in New York City requires retailers to assume this responsibility.    

The right product stewardship program can have a positive influence on motivating people to adopt e-waste recycling. The industry's first and only product stewardship program for rechargeable batteries, Call2Recycle, relies on strong partnerships, a comprehensive collection infrastructure and an expansive public education campaign to raise awareness and enlist participation from consumers, business, retailers and communities.

Rechargeable batteries can contain metals that could potentially harm the environment, so recycling them minimizes their environmental impact while also reclaiming metals that can be used to make new materials. Founded in 1994, the nonprofit program provides a comprehensive and environmentally sound recycling solution for rechargeable batteries in the U.S. and Canada. There are more than 30,000 collection sites at businesses, retailers and communities that accept old cell phones and used rechargeable batteries that power products like digital cameras, laptops, camcorders, PDAs, cordless power tools and wireless gaming devices. Call2Recycle's nationwide retail participants include such big-box stores as RadioShack, Target, Sears, Home Depot and Lowe's, while its network of community and public agency participants number close to 6,000. Total collections since the program's inception now exceed 50 million pounds of rechargeable batteries.

As exhibited by the case of battery recycling, product stewardship has the potential to be an effective and sustainable method for addressing the e-waste crisis. The turnkey solution, a vast collection network and an environmentally sound recycling process have all contributed to Call2Recycle's success, both from a participant and collection standpoint. But even more critical has been dovetailing the infrastructure with education and motivation for consumers to participate. Experience has shown that even with a highly developed recycling infrastructure, recycling programs can fail if they do not create a catalyst for participation.  

Carl Smith is the CEO of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. More information on the program is available at Wikipedia and Facebook.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user cogdogblog.

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