What the Emerging U.S. E-Waste Recycling System Means for Designers

What the Emerging U.S. E-Waste Recycling System Means for Designers

U.S. computer and television manufacturers are preparing for a fundamental change in the way they conduct business. Electronic manufacturers have begun warming up to the idea of an acceptable obligatory national system for the collection of these products for recycling and waste treatment. Details of the system, including timeline for implementation, are being discussed within the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative. NEPSI has been discussing these matters for several years, and progress occurred in mid-2002. Recent events have spurred U.S. manufacturers to accept the idea.

The European Union directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment has moved ahead according to legislative schedule, despite efforts by international electronics companies and associations to block the law. The WEEE requires all electronic products with a battery or electrical plug in the E.U. to be collected and recycled starting 2008. Japan and other East Asian nations have also adopted electronic collection and recycling regimes.

Canadian provinces have adopted collection and recycling of consumer electrical and electronic equipment as part of a larger household waste collection program. Manitoba is adopting the collection system and other provinces are seriously discussing adopting similar systems that ban electronic products from being disposed of in the regular waste stream.

The State of California is the furthest along of the U.S. states. California Governor Gray Davis rejected a draft law that would require development of a new State agency to administer collection and recycling of e-waste. In his response to the CA legislature, he proposed a system that would require manufacturers to pay the cost to collect and recycle e-waste, along the lines of the WEEE. He promises to sign such a law in 2003.

These recent initiatives have spurred NEPSI stakeholders (including Industry, government, nonprofit organizations and recyclers) to begin cooperating to resolve the difficult issues of such a system. According to Wayne Rifer, NEPSI participant, “there are several difficult issues to address, and the stakeholders are working cooperatively to resolve these issues."

The primary issues include the specifics of the finance system, the percentage goals of materials to be recycled, and the specific categories of products included in the system. Currently the U.S. NEPSI system will include computers, monitors, televisions, and computer peripherals. Cell phones and other electronic equipment are not now included. The term “computer peripheral” is still being defined.

Such collection and recycling systems are long overdue, and we designers pose a crucial question about these developing systems: Will the proposed recycling give incentives to business to improve the ease of disassembly, recyclability, and use of recycled content in products and packaging?

If the evolving regulations and systems don’t give financial incentives to companies for making products faster (and therefore more profitable) to disassemble and recycle, then companies, despite the new collection system requirements, will not give the green light to designers to make disassembly fast and easy. That would be tragic, even though some folks see the collection system as the first step in an evolving process.

At a time when the national government abdicates its responsibility for environmental protection, skeptics say we will have to hold our breath another half decade before e-waste collection infrastructures materialize. Many participants in NEPSI, however, are more optimistic.

Product designers who are committed to a cleaner environment and more sustainable industry have two responsibilities: Stay informed of the process, and promote a recycling system that gives financial incentives for fast disassembly and high recycled content for housings and structural parts. So stay tuned -- this story is just beginning.

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Philip White is principle of Orb Analysis for Design, a consultancy specializing in ecologically friendly product design in Portland, Ore.