The Challenges of Producer Responsibility in Electronics

The Challenges of Producer Responsibility in Electronics

A new campaign seeks to establish extended producer responsibility, life-cycle accountability, and clean production within the high-tech industry in the U.S. By Ted Smith



The high-tech electronics industry is now significantly globalized. The components in our computers are built, assembled, used and trashed all over the world. During the past 20 years, a wide range of production related health and environmental hazards have been identified and addressed in Silicon Valley. Today, there’s a new threat: the growing mounds of electronic waste created by rapid obsolescence and the industry’s throw-away culture.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the International Campaign for Responsible Technology launched the Computer Take Back Campaign in order to establish extended producer responsibility, life-cycle accountability, and clean production within the high-tech industry in the U.S. The goal of the campaign is to protect the health of electronics users, workers, and the communities where electronics are produced and discarded by requiring consumer electronics manufacturers and brand owners to take full responsibility for the life cycle of the products, through effective public policy requirements or enforceable agreements. We will accomplish this goal by establishing extended producer responsibility (EPR) as the policy tool to promote sustainable production and consumption of consumer electronics (all products with a circuit board). The campaign will focus first on establishing EPR for personal computers.

EPR will improve the next generation of solid-waste and toxic-materials policy, promote the manufacture of cleaner computers and curb the flow of toxic electronic waste by pushing manufacturers to take responsibility for their waste, internalizing its cost in corporate bottom lines, and phasing out the use of the most hazardous materials.

Electronic waste is one of the most rapidly growing waste problems throughout the U.S. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2000 more than 4.6 million tons of e-waste ended up in U.S. landfills. This amount is projected to grow four-fold. Heavy metals from e-waste already make up about 40% of those metals found in landfills.

U.S. e-waste is being shipped to Asia where it is causing serious environmental and health problems. Some of the worst practices include the burning of the plastic coatings from cable and wires in order to “recycle” the copper inside, but in the process dioxins and furans are released from the burning of the bromine and chlorine in the plastics. Women and children sort the wires by day and they are then burned by night. Other plastic parts are also burned to retrieve the metals inside.

These practices have been documented in China, India, Pakistan, Korea and several other countries throughout Asia. U.S. brokers ship massive amounts of e-waste to Asia since they can make more money by export than is possible through “recycling” in the U.S.. Workers in the Chinese villages come in from the countryside where poverty is rampant and are paid about $1.50 per day to work in these operations.

The Computer Take Back Campaign Platform

In response to the growing e-waste problems in the U.S. and because of the growing awareness that the U.S. is lagging behind Europe and Japan, the Computer Take Back Campaign has been organized as a broad coalition of environmental, health, labor, recycling groups and local governments to address the issues. They have developed a comprehensive platform that has three key goals:

1. Take It Back
  • Producer Responsibility: Hold manufacturers/brand owners responsible for meeting specific goals for electronics recovery, reuse, and recycled content that are at least as stringent as goals adopted by the European Union, providing manufacturers with an incentive to finance the development of a convenient and effective collection, disassembly, reuse, and recycling infrastructure.
  • Taxpayer Relief: Shift financial responsibility off of taxpayer-funded collection, management and disposal programs that are already overburdened and under-funded; in the short-term -- in areas where no other collection opportunity exists -- local programs should be authorized to charge-back manufacturers for the costs of managing their electronic devices.
2. Make It Clean
  • Toxics Use Reduction: Require manufacturers of consumer electronic devices to meet specific reduction goals and implement programs at least as stringent as those adopted by the European Union to phase down -- and where feasible, phase out -- the use of hazardous materials in their products
3. Recycle Responsibly
  • Market Based Incentives: Require manufacturers to pay the net cost of collecting and recycling electronic devices (or the cost of proper disposal for devices that are not recyclable), providing manufacturers with an incentive to design products for recyclability, to develop markets for recycling, and to support public education about how consumers can manage electronics at the end of their useful lives.
  • Right to Know: Require manufacturers to disclose hazardous constituents; at minimum, all electronic devices containing hazardous materials must be clearly labeled to identify environmental hazards and proper materials management.
  • Performance Standards: Establish meaningful and verifiable performance standards for electronics recycling companies, specifying responsible management practices, including bans on landfilling, incinerating or exporting electronic waste.
  • Community Economic Development: Ensure that the recycling infrastructure promotes community economic development, including safe jobs at living wages.
This platform has now been endorsed by hundreds of groups around the U.S. and has served as the basis of a state-based legislative campaign that is beginning to take hold. This past year, 20 states introduced legislation related to e-waste, and the California legislature passed the first two bills in the country. Tellingly, all of the U.S. electronics companies and their trade associations opposed the California legislation, with the exception of Apple Computer.

Another tactic being used by the Computer Take Back Campaign is a corporate campaign to harness consumer pressure on computer companies, such as on college campuses. Working with socially responsible investors, and by organizing students to use their own buying power and to pressure their campuses, the campaign is making progress at building public awareness and consumer education.

Dell Computer Company has emerged as the campaign’s chief target because they are the industry leader in market share but have consistently been ranked as a laggard in the Computer Report Card. They and the other U.S. companies have been asked to report to shareholders on the implications of complying with the WEEE directive in the U.S. We have started a campus-based Web site to promote this campaign.

SVTC and CTBC have also been monitoring the developments in green design by the major computer manufacturers. Information for consumers about green design, eco-labeling, and products that are lead free, and halogen free are posted online.

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Ted Smith is executive director at Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition/Campaign for Responsible Technology. SVTC documented and exposed e-waste pollution in Asia in a recent report entitled “Exporting Harm” which was co-published with the Basel Action Network in 2002.

This article was first published in idsa-sf.org’s November 2002 issue of
InCA.