Watching Our Waste

Watching Our Waste

Electronics waste -- and the regulation of it -- is growing globally. Here's a look at some efforts designed to curb our expanding waste. By Michele Raymond

Electronics waste -- or “e-waste” as Californians have dubbed it -- has become a red hot issue in the last several years in the United States, Europe and Asia. Those who will end up paying most of the bills -- the manufacturers -- are being bombarded with new regulations and demands to pay not only for the costs of current and historic e-waste, but to redesign their products to eliminate heavy metals such as lead and mercury and to make them easily disassembled.

Outside the United States, electronics makers are looking at not one, but three sets of “takeback” laws in many countries. In about 28 countries manufacturers must pay fees on their packaging; batteries must be recycled in more than 15 countries; and electronics product takeback laws exist in 13 countries. As of early 2004, electronics fees must be paid in more than eight countries.

Here in the United States, more than 53 electronics waste bills were considered in 26 states in 2003, with California enacting a fee on cathode ray tubes in October.

The handwriting is on the wall: there will soon be mandatory “producer responsibility” laws for some electronics in the U.S., but whether this will be on a national scale or a patchwork of costly state laws is yet to be seen.

Why target electronics?

Reports indicate that electronics comprise only about 2% to 4% of municipal solid waste (MSW), but as electronics become smaller and less expensive, people tend to trash equipment more frequently rather than repair it. A survey from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in 1999 found that of the 32% who said their television stopped working in the last five years, only 21% had them repaired and another 20% put them in storage. More than 60% of households have a computer and 33% report keeping an old computer in storage.

And the electronics field is expected to continue its rapid growth rates. In its State of the World 2004 report, the Worldwatch Institute says that the number of personal computers worldwide increased fivefold between 1988 and 2002 -- from 105 million to more than half a billion. By 2005, one computer will become obsolete for every new computer put on the market. The electronics industry is the world’s largest and fastest-growing manufacturing industry, and due to the high rates of product obsolescence, electronic waste (e-waste) is growing rapidly. Only 3% of discarded computers are directed for reuse. About 50% to 80% of U.S. e-waste collected for recycling is sent to Asia, where substandard recycling facilities can have extreme impacts on human health and the environment. Some European studies indicate that waste electronics (also referred to as WEEE) is growing three times faster than regular municipal waste. Moreover, the advent of high-definition television will encourage even more people to trash their old sets. Underscoring society’s awareness of disposal options: a recent study from the State of Florida indicates that 81% of consumers are not even aware you can recycle computers, and that the majority -- 64% -- are not willing to pay to have their computer recycled.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) has been gaining wide publicity for its “report cards” on company actions, as well as for its exposé revealing that 50% to 80% of old computers sent for recycling in the U.S. are subsequently exported to Asia. SVTC’s 2002 report entitled “Exporting Harm” found that many family operations use children to disassemble lead-containing cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in China and India.

While activists point to “toxic” heavy metals used in electronics as a good reason to recycle them and not landfill, debate remains on how toxic today’s electronics are. Getting the e-waste out does reduce the toxicity of incinerator emissions and ash; however, observers say recycling electronics will do little to improve the landfill situation overall.

Plastics also are a factor. There are about four billion pounds of engineered plastics used in electronics in North America annually -- but no one can say how many pounds of plastics are actually available for disposal/recycling because the United States now imports the vast majority of its consumer electronics, especially televisions. Plastics account for about 19% of the electronics waste stream, according to the European plastics associations. There are only a few U.S. companies with equipment to auto-sort types of engineered plastics, and manufacturers say they cannot get enough volume of recycled resin to make regular use viable because of the lack of collection infrastructure in the United States. There are, however, plenty of technologies available to sort types of plastics.

European Directives Far-Reaching

The European Union (EU) enacted two waste electronics directives in January 2003. The WEEE Directive requires manufacturers to fund recovery of all types of electronics including those used at a commercial, institutional or industrial setting that are similar to a consumer electronic item. The law includes just about everything with a battery or a cord -- from shavers to athletic equipment

to printers to cell phones to vending machines and main-frame computers. Units must be taken back free of charge, with existing companies paying for all historic and “orphan” waste recycling. “Orphan waste” is equipment made by companies that are no longer in business. “Visible fees” are allowed, as this type of system is now in effect in Belgium, The Netherlands and Switzerland, and soon several other countries.

Companies theoretically will have to prove at import that they have paid their collection fees; if not, a government can require a deposit to ensure the importing company won’t go out of business and leave other manufacturers with the recycling bill. Member states are required to ban electronics from solid waste and ensure collection of four kilograms per capita. A long list of items must be removed prior to recycling.

The Directive on Toxics (RoHS) bans heavy metals, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium and cadmium and some flame retardants (PBBB and PPBDEs) by mid-2006 in all covered electronics, though there are a number of exemptions, which include CRTs and some high-temperature lead solder applications.

The European Commission has been working on definitions of electronics to clarify the scope of these far-reaching directives, but observers say there will not be enough time for many companies to comply on the design end. European countries (referred to as member states) can be more stringent than the directive on the WEEE (takeback) part, but not on the substance restrictions part.

There is some question as to how the European countries will enforce the new directives.

Asia: Three Countries Regulate

Only three countries mandate recycling of electronics in Asia: Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. None of the countries are trying to recycle all electronics. Japan’s manufacturers formed three main collection co-ops to recycle televisions, large appliances, air conditioners, PCs and laptops. The government also places design-for-environment and recycled content requirements on a wide range of domestic electronics makers.

Taiwan has struggled because the government did not plan for infrastructure before it mandated collection of electronics, though it now has three new plants, which has eased the situation. A new South Korea law requires takeback of appliances, computers, printers and peripherals, and it will add cameras and cell pones in 2005.

Research for “Electronics Recycling: What to Expect from Global Mandates” indicates that the economics for recycling cell phones throughout Asia are favorable because of the high value metals they contain. How-ever, most Asian countries probably will not enact or enforce major mandates because they do not want to discourage foreign investment. There are signs, however, that China, India and Thailand will consider new WEEE takeback rules in 2004.

United States: No National Direction

Today, companies are not supposed to collect more than a few CRTs without becoming a hazardous waste generator under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The U.S. EPA plans new regulations to clarify that electronics destined for recycling are not subject to such stringent regulations, and several states have already exempted electronics to facilitate recycling. The draft federal rules were held up in 2003 because of export concerns.

Meanwhile, major Japanese manufacturers (Panasonic, Sharp, JVC) -- some of whom will have the most to lose on funding of recovery of old televisions -- took the lead in 2002 by funding various pilots in the United States Sony has decided to take back its old units free of charge, and a number of other companies -- IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and others -- have followed suit with differing recovery programs. American computer companies have had recovery programs on the commercial level for many years, but they are still grappling with the challenge of getting back old consumer units.

In 2003, more than 52 new electronics waste bills were introduced in about 26 state hoppers -- many of which would have required either new fees or for manufacturers to take back their old products. Some would have gone further than the EU directives on heavy metals and brominated flame retardant bans. While only a few weak bills passed, the handwriting was on the wall. Then, in October 2003, California enacted a new fee on CRTs and will now attempt to enforce EU-based bans on heavy metals for some electronic products.

In April 2001, talks began on the National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), which included a number of electronics makers, 24 governments (represented by the National Product Stewardship Institute) and activists including SVTC. Most manufacturers were skeptical that the group could come to any agreement. (It should be noted that in the United States and Canada, these national talks are only centered on recovery of a few products: televisions, computers and peripherals, as opposed to all electronics in Europe.)

Meanwhile, the SVTC has kept the pressure on, not only with its scathing reports, but by pressuring local governments to pass resolutions favoring new state laws. There were about 250 total local government resolutions (mostly in California and Massachusetts) as of mid-2003.

In March 2002, the NEPSI conferees announced they had reached an agreement in principle. There would have to be a collection organization with fees on computers, peripherals and televisions, as well as some sort of legislation to eliminate “free riders.” However, there was no agreement by the September 2002 deadline, and snags occurred in 2003 because of two industry factions: PC makers wanted to internalize costs and take back directly, while other IT and television makers wanted the visible fee because of their huge liability on historic waste. While progress was made in 2003, the EPA suspended funding of NEPSI because of a technicality (it might lead to federal legislation!) so organizers were scrambling to get private funding in the hopes of finding a final national solution in early 2004.

Observers say that if NEPSI fails, industry could end up with a costly patchwork of state “EPR” laws and fees.

Compliance -- At a Price

A survey of environmental reports from 29 major electronics makers for Electronics Recycling: What to Expect from Global Mandates 2003 edition finds nearly all of the brand owners have some sort of internal recycling system for commercial products. Those with a mostly commercial customer base are able to attain high recovery rates and seem to be reusing parts and finding ways to use recycled plastics when feasible. Nearly all have reduced their use of hazardous materials, and all have saved money doing so. Any company using lead solder or brominated flame retardants (BFRs) has a program to phase them out, as this will be required eventually.

Japanese companies have stringent goals to eliminate lead solder and BFRs quite soon. It is difficult to tell if the Japanese companies are making more progress than the American companies. Japanese companies provide very comprehensive environmental reports, whereas the other companies do not. And though it appears that the Japanese companies jumped on the environmental bandwagon later than major U.S. firms, they seem to be willing to make large financial investments in environmental improvement.

U.S. companies are frequently hamstrung because of quarterly profit mandates -- the environmental budgets may vary according to the economy. Only one U.S. company disclosed its overall environmental investment. IBM Corp. claimed it spent about $115 million on all environmental activities in 2001, but this resulted in saving more than $200 million in avoided compliance and other costs. Matsushita is the biggest spender: $413 million for 2002. All told, just nine of the top Japanese companies surveyed spent about $1.5 billion on environmental issues in the 2001 to 2002 period.

Other research for the report indicates that U.S. companies will meet the 2006 deadline for phasing out lead solder . . . but at a price. Currently, the industry is grappling with confusing sets of specs, and a serious challenge that will require better cooperation throughout the supply chain. “The drafters of this legislation didn’t understand how complex the distribution channels are,” says Rich Charbonneau of Storage Tek, a major supplier.

Overall, industry associations in Europe claim that gearing up to comply with Europe’s WEEE mandates alone will cost industry about $40 billion. Matsushita alone will spend about $43 million to phase out the heavy metals.

Michele Raymond is the owner of Raymond Communications, publisher of “State Recycling Laws Update and Recycling Laws International.” This summary was adapted from the company’s “Electronics Recycling: What to Expect from Global Mandates, a report that was updated in late 2003.”

This article has been reprinted courtesy of [email protected]. It first appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2004 edition of that publication.