Making Progress on the E-Waste Problem

Making Progress on the E-Waste Problem

Electronic waste is one of the big problems facing not just the IT industry, but almost all businesses. More often than not, it takes a back seat to more pressing issues of energy efficiency or even just staying afloat in an economy like this.

But the issue remains urgent, not only because of new laws in Europe and Asia around manufacturing and recycling toxic materials in electronics, but also because of the massive environmental and health problems created by e-waste dumping. A host of companies and non-profits are worki on e-waste issues, and last month saw a series of developments happen in rapid succession.

I spoke with Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator for the Electronics Takeback Coalition, about e-waste in the news and how companies can get out in front of their problems with toxics.

Matthew Wheeland: Great. Barbara, thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. I wanted to talk to you because it seems like in the last few weeks there's been sort of a landslide of events about e-waste take back in several different forms. And so I wanted to get your take on what exactly has gone down and how significant are each of these events?

Barbara Kyle: So one of the things that's most recently happened is a report came out last week from the federal GAO that was a pretty scathing report about the problem of e-waste exports from the U.S. and how it's really ending up being dumped on developing countries around the world.

And it's significant that this is really the first time the federal government has acknowledged and really focused attention on this issue. It's something that the NGOs at our organization, particularly our partner organization the Basel Action Network, has been talking about for a long time. Greenpeace has. A lot of groups have. It's been in the media.

But the federal government has never really shown a light on this problem until this report. And it basically acknowledges that our e-waste is flowing out of the U.S. almost without restriction and ending up in the developing nations around the world. A lot of it goes to China or other parts of Asia. China and India in particular. Or in countries in West Africa, where it's really handled in a very dangerous way.

It's very -- there's some very unsafe practices there where it's basically bashed and burned just to get at the metals in these products and the workers are exposed to horrific toxins in the process. Our government is well aware of it, but really not doing much to stop it and it's a practice that continues. And the few regulations the EPA does have that would restrict this -- at least in one category is CRT, cathode ray tubes, they don't enforce.

So the end result is it's just all going out the door. And we think that needs to be stopped and could easily be stopped. The federal government could easily take action to ban the export of the toxic waste to developing countries and that's in fact what we're hoping Congress will do in the next session.

MW: And along those lines, I think the day of or the day after the release of that GAO report there was some activity I believe in both houses of Congress around that. It wasn't so far as to actually present legislation was it? It was just further discussions of the export of toxic electronic waste?

BK: That's right. And it's in the form of a resolution. So it's a non-binding resolution. Representative Gene Green of Texas had introduced it in the House at the end of July. And the day after the GAO report, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced a similar resolution in the Senate.

And it basically says Congress needs to act on this to ban the export of toxic e-waste to developing countries. So it's -- while it's a non-binding resolution, it's definitely a signal that these are legislatures who intend to lead on this issue. It's a way to already engage members to ask them to be co-sponsors of it. And while it's not something that I think is ever even gonna get voted on, it's still a way to engage and indicate that this is an issue they take seriously and expect to see moved in their legislative chambers next year.

MW: Okay. One of the other things that happened, I think it was just last week. Greenpeace released its quarterly -- its latest quarterly report card for electronics manufacturers. And Greenpeace has said and has shown that their report cards in the past have helped to speed up or even move companies further down the line of -- towards green products, whether it's energy efficiency, whether it's manufacturing with recycling in mind or minimizing the amount of toxics used in manufacturing. Do you see NGOs pushing the ball forward -- pushing the ball further going forward or do you think this is going to move into legislative realm soon?

BK: Well, without a doubt the NGOs pushing on these companies has had an impact and Greenpeace's report card has been a big part of that. We've also been, for the last almost a year, campaigning on the television companies in particular with the digital conversion deadline happening next year in February. We've been focusing a lot of attention on the television industry here because until recently there was no TV company that offered a take back program, while the computer companies have had these for a couple of years at least.

None of the television companies were taking back old TVs and everybody's getting rid of old TVs because everybody's buying new ones. So the very companies that are making money off selling us the whatever it is, 30 or 40 million new flat panels every year, were doing nothing to take back the old ones and make sure that they were getting recycled. And so we've seen some progress on that.

And last year Sony was the first TV company to offer a takeback program. They'll take back basically TVs and anything with Sony's name on it at their designated collection sites. Now, there's not enough sites yet, but they are adding to their list all the time. And so that's a growing program. LG Electronics announced a takeback program just this past month in early August using the same collection sites as Sony. They work with the same collection -- the same recycler.

And then just a couple of weeks ago Samsung announced that they will be launching their takeback program in October. So we're looking forward to more details on that, but also a takeback program for all of their products. Samsung is the global sales leader of televisions globally and in the U.S.. So that's a huge step forward now to have those three companies with take back programs, whereas a year ago these companies not only weren't doing it, they were lobbying against legislation that would require them to take responsibility for their products in the states. So that's a big turn around pretty quickly for this industry.

MW: So I want to come back to sort of the big question of what's driving these companies to announce these programs. But something you just mentioned that I also wanted to touch on, which was the end of the Advanced Recycling Fee coalition. Is that the right name for it?

BK: That's right. The ARF coalition.

MW: The ARF coalition. Yes. So last month, I think it was, this coalition disbanded. Tell me a little bit about that and why that was a positive for the overall e-waste take back movement.

BK: So this was a coalition of virtually every TV company that sells in the U.S. or all the big ones. Maybe 15 companies that existed for several years to lobby -- specifically to lobby against legislation that would require them to take any responsibility for collecting and recycling their old products. That was a movement that was already happening with computer -- the computer industry and they wanted no part of it and spent I don't know how many millions of dollars lobbying against bills, both federally and in the states that would give them any responsibility.

And instead what they wanted was something that's called an advanced recycling fee or ARF, which is what California has. The only state to go that way that basically sticks it to consumers. It says consumers pay a fee when they buy the product. In California that money goes to the state and it gets used to just reimburse some recyclers, electronics recycling that happens in California. What it doesn't do though is include any responsibility or any participation at all from the manufacturer.

And the reason that groups like mine like to see the manufacturers involved is we think that there is -- at a certain point if the companies are responsibility for paying for recycling then they have a financial incentive to figure out how to make their products more recyclable in the first place. And that's really what this is all about. It's trying to promote a different design model through pressure on the end of life of the products, what happens to them when consumers are done with them.

So the ARF coalition, for several years, lobbied vigorously against these bills. And, again, through pressure from the NGOs, and Greenpeace's report card absolutely had a role in this, starting last year some of these companies started to withdraw from the coalition. They got a lot of heat from us and from Greenpeace on being members of the coalition and lobbying against the bills. And so the big companies withdrew: Sony, LG, Samsung, IBM was part of it actually still. They pulled out.

And so they lost a lot of their big members. And the core of this coalition or the leaders have always been Panasonic, Sharp, and Phillips. And so that really took the wind out of their sails until finally they actually disbanded the coalition just in the last month or so and so it no longer even exists. Once Panasonic pulled out it, no longer exists.

And now we've seen Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba have actually created a recycling company. So they've finally given up on fighting this thing. And I think they figured out, "Well, let's figure out how to make money of it," honestly.

And they're only doing the recycling now in states where the law requires them to. We'd like to see them, now that they have a company, broaden their offering to be a national take back program. Why not? If you already have a company that's -- know how to do it, why not do that nationally?

But at this point they're only willing to do it in the states that have passed laws that make them do it. So it's a complete turnabout from where we were a couple of years ago. And this -- it's an issue that -- where things have changed very quickly and it's a really good trajectory for us. I think we're on the -- very much on the right track.

MW: Great. And what's driving companies to take these steps? Whether it's to launch a take back program. Whether it's to launch an entire company with other manufacturers about take back and recycling. It sounds like to some extent it's pressure from NGOs. Is it also concern about pending legislation or as you mentioned briefly, is it also possible for these companies to make money, to see bottom line benefits from taking back what otherwise would have been waste?

BK: Well, I think it's all three of those things happening together. So we now have 16 states that have passed producer responsibility laws plus New York City. All of this just in the last few years. So they're a little bit different. Some of them include computers and televisions. Some of them are just computer equipment. Some have even a broader list of products like printers and faxes.

But basically it says in those states if you want to sell in the state you have to have a program to take products back from consumers for free. And so that's a huge driver. So companies are having to figure out how to do this in a whole lot of states around the country. And so with that many states taking these steps they can't pretend this is not a trend. They can't -- I mean this has been happening in other parts of the world, in Asia, in Europe for a long time.

They have these obligations, but they were really trying to fight it in the U.S.. And I think they just have to acknowledge at a certain point they're not gonna be able to fight it and so they really might as well figure out how to do it. And so I think some of them -- like Sony was the first TV company that we heard say that they think that at a certain level of volume they can make money off of this or at least not lose money off it. Make it -- not make it a negative cost for them, but make it cost neutral.

The metals market internationally has been through the roof in the last couple of years. So the value of recycled metals is very, very high, much higher than it used to be. So that makes the prospect of recovering metals from recycling a much more interesting economic venture. In fact, we've heard some people talk about they may start to mine -- go into landfills to mine for metals in old electronics that have been dumped in landfills because of the metal value there, particularly the precious metals.

So that's -- there's a few things coming together there. But I think companies cannot turn their back on this anymore. In fact, today we just saw an announcement. IBM is launching a new environmental consultancy. I forget what they call it. But basically to be a consultant to companies, manufacturers to figure out how to consider their whole lifecycle of their products at the design table. Including -- and they specifically list how to deal with your product when -- at the end of life when consumers are done with it. So to make sure you're designing it with that mind as well as the materials they select.

So that's another good sign, I think, that -- if IBM is launching this then they figure there's enough demand that they can make money at it and get companies to buy into the concept. So it indicates to me that companies are finally starting to embrace these ideas and it's not just -- hopefully not just a PR thing for them, but in fact they're gonna really figure out how to do it.

MW: And let's talk a little bit about the design of these electronics. If half, or presumably quite a bit more, of the problem is what to do with products that are already out in the -- out in the wild, how is design changing what products are being sold today? What new products are being developed and what's gonna happen at the end of their lives?

BK: Well, I would say that the design right now isn't really looking -- isn't even considering about the end of life of the product, sadly. And that's a dynamic we want to change. So if you just look at LCD TVs, right? Everyone's buying flat panel TVs. LCDs are selling far and away the biggest category of flat panels.

And LCDs -- the LCD glass is -- the lamps are lit with mercury, so there's mercury lamps in all of these things. Mercury, terribly toxic. And then the LCD panel glass itself is made out of liquid crystals, which nobody knows how to recycle and it's a huge part of the cost of the panel. When it comes back, what are people gonna do with it?

Millions and millions of pounds of this stuff and the best technology right now is you burn it. Well, that doesn't tell me that these are companies that have really thought about this at the design table. And when we talk to TV companies about, "What are you gonna do with the LCDs when you get 'em back?” Their answer is, "Well, we don't even care because we're gonna be on to the next thing. We're looking at LED technology. But the time those things come back we won't have any use for them.”

And that's kind of -- and they say that with no hint of irony, but it kind of gets right at the issue of companies not thinking about the full lifecycle of the product at the design table because they're just making material selections only with the use of the product in mind with no thought about what happens when we're done with it. So I think that once the companies actually have to be paying for recycling all this stuff, that will change. That is a financial driver to get them to actually think about that and not just say, "We don't care. It's not our problem.”

I don't think we're there yet. I don't think we're there yet at all. With the volumes that are coming back on these programs, a lot of the state programs actually don't even go online until next year or the year after. But I think it will. I think it will very much get there to the point where they -- somebody in these companies that's -- is gonna look at the costs of these recycling programs and say, "Hey, wait a minute. Can't we figure out how to make our products in a way that makes this cost line come down for us?”

MW: Great. And changing topics slightly. What -- do you see any strategies by companies by not -- not by manufacturing companies, but by end user companies especially thinking about bulk purchasers of electronics, whether it's televisions or monitors or computers. Do you see any strategies from these companies who are trying to buy lower impact products and what's working for them?

BK: The healthcare industry is one in particular that -- this is more on computer products, but that has -- very much has articulated demands around figuring out the greener products to use in the healthcare environment. But there's not a lot of tools, sadly, to really work with. There's this EPEAT tool that the EPA has developed. It's a scoring system -- a voluntary scoring system that the computer companies use to grade their products against some environment criteria.

Which is a start. It doesn't include a lot of important things so it's not perfect. And it only allows you to grade, obviously, products that are out on there on the market. We'd like to see it look a little further down the road so that these companies can use it as a way to say, "Okay. Well, this year I'll buy this. But in three years I want to see a product that doesn't have any of these materials in it.” You know, to use it as a way to really push the industry in a direction that the buyers want to see it go in.

The EPEAT process is supposed to now take on televisions. That was a -- there was a whole process about figuring out what was the next group of products. But now the TV companies are pushing back and saying, "No, no. We don't want to be part EP. We don't want that process and we don't want to have to be doing that kind of grading.”

So that's a really disappointing development that we hope will change, but right now the TV industry seems pretty dug in about not wanting their products to have any kind of an environment grading system attached to it. So it's an arena that's important where big buyers can use their buying power to try to encourage development in the right direction as far as green products go. But I think we just hit the tip of the iceberg about really leveraging that.

MW: And, again, what do you see moving that iceberg more quickly? Do you see that -- whether it's institutional buyers saying, "We're only gonna buy products that meet these criteria,” whether it's NGOs raising the red flag about what's actually in these products that both individuals and also these institutions and companies are buying. Or is it legislation that may or may not get introduced maybe in the next congressional session?

BK: More of the action is along the lines of the institutional purchasers and the NGOs themselves pushing that envelope. I mean it'd be great to say that there's gonna be some legislation that deals with materials and so forth. But I don't really see that happening in the short run in this country. I mean that's happened somewhat in Europe and we've benefited from it.

But I'm not seeing a will in Congress right now to legislate on that. And it's hard to do that at the state level. So I think now more of this -- more of the pressure has come from the buyers and the NGOs about, "What's your timeline for phasing this out? We want to buy products that don't contain this. We want products that have this kind of an energy rating.” That kind of thing.

So it's very slow, incremental. But I think that's -- I think we're gonna see a lot more of that as companies realize they have that buying power and as shareholders or staff, leadership in the companies start to think, "We need to pay more attention to this.”

MW: Where can companies go if they are looking for resources for -- whether it's to buy the greenest possible electronics or places to go with their outdated electronics. What are some of the places that people should start looking either on the procurement or asset management side of the process?

BK: So for people that are looking to buy products in the computer product range, the first place to look is at EPEAT, http://EPEAT.net, which is the scoring system for institutional computers. And people can actually go in and see model by model what products are graded bronze, silver, or gold. So that's a great resource.

They can also -- if they're doing purchasing in their own bidding, in their own contracts or requests for -- their RFPs, they can ask the companies to go further than that. And they can ask for things that maybe they didn't score quite as highly as they wanted to on EPEAT and push the companies in that way. And we have some procurement guidelines -- some additional procurement questions and guidelines on our website at ElectronicsTakeBack.com if people are looking for resources there.

When it comes to what should they be doing with their old stuff, there's a couple ways to think about it. All of these computer manufacturers have asset recovery sides to their business. So some companies will bundle that together to make sure that the company -- the manufacturer is taking back their old stuff as part of their purchase contract and leverage that to get a better deal. And those companies are managing then the takeback.

Some companies will work with an independent asset recovery firm. And one of our partner organizations, the Basel Action Network, actually has a list of pledge signers, which are recyclers who have pledged to adhere to high standards with how they manage the recycling. So these are companies that aren't exporting it and dumping it in China and India, but are managing it in a responsible way. And so there's a -- on our website again under the responsible recycling there's a map that you can click on your state and see who are those companies in your state or on the BAN website too, http://BAN.org. All those companies are listed on both sites.

So those are two important things to -- as resources to look towards. But even some companies aren't -- don't even realize -- sometimes the purchasing and the disposal aren't even managed in the same way. And so some companies aren't really paying attention to the disposal at all and are just going with whatever seems to be the lowest bid option. And so that's -- it's just important to companies to really understand there are good recyclers that are managing their old waste in a responsible way and there's an awful lot of companies that are not. And they just need to pay attention to that.

MW: Great, Barbara. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. I look forward to hearing about more updates about progress on the e-waste front.

BK: Thank you.

Matthew Wheeland is the managing editor of GreenBiz.com. More information on electronic waste is available online in GreenerComputing's E-waste & Recycling section.