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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2002 : Timelines


Who's Responsible?
Study explores increasing public concerns about electronics recycling.

The Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation (WCRC), a citizen-based advocacy group located in Seattle, WA, released in September the results of a telephone survey addressing electronics waste and recycling. The survey was prompted by increasing public concern about toxics contained in computers and televisions and the limited options for recycling those items. Computers and televisions contain significant quantities of mercury and lead and are difficult to disassemble for recycling. In fact, they are in the process of being banned from disposal at landfills and incinerators in many communities across the United States.

The study found that Seattle area residents overwhelmingly believe that electronics manufacturers should be responsible for designing easily recyclable, less toxic products, and for providing a safe and convenient way to recycle those products. In addition, the study revealed that residents would prefer to take their used computers back to local retailers for recycling. The study also noted that when faced with a “pre-paid” recycling fee added to the cost of the product, residents are highly unlikely to adjust their buying habits.

Study highlights include:
* 94 percent of respondents agreed that corporations that make electronic products should be responsible for designing them to be easily recyclable and less toxic. Ninety-two percent also agreed that when these products contain toxic lead and mercury, these corporations should provide a safe and convenient way to recycle them.
* 71 percent of respondents would prefer that pre-paid recycling costs be included in the retail cost of the product. And at least 61 percent of respondents would prefer to take their computers and electronic products back to a retailer for recycling, even if free recycling were also offered at local landfills, transfer stations or via shipping to the original manufacturer.
* If a pre-paid recycling fee of $15 were added to the cost of a television, 86 percent of survey respondents said they would buy it anyway. Only eight percent said they would buy over the Internet to avoid the fee.
* Faced with a $20 fee to recycle an old computer system, 55 percent said they would bring the computer in for recycling. But 34 percent said they would store their computer at home instead of recycling the computer and paying the fee. Only four percent admitted that they would put it illegally in the garbage.

The WCRC survey was written in cooperation with PRR, a Seattle consulting firm, and included in the August edition of SoundStats, a monthly omnibus survey fielded by Northwest Research Group. The poll was fielded between August 14 and August 18. The sample included 407 King County residents, chosen at random from local residential phone listings. The overall margin of error for the sample is plus or minus five percent. Full survey results are available on-line at WCRC_Report2.pdf

The findings of the WCRC study are particularly notable because they directly contradict an Electronic Industries Association (EIA) poll administered to a sample of online consumers between May 28 and June 3. According to the EIA, a national trade organization that represents 80 percent of the U.S electronics manufacturers (a $550 billion industry), their poll results indicated that pre-paid recycling fees as low as $5 would reduce consumer likelihood to buy new electronic products. In addition, EIA reported that these consumers would choose to buy online, incurring additional shipping and handling costs, in order to avoid a pre-paid recycling fee at a retail store. EIA has asserted that consumers attempting to bypass recycling fees would significantly impact state sales tax revenues in states enacting pre-paid recycling. Despite heavy industry lobbying, the California legislature passed such a bill (requiring pre-paid recycling fees) in mid-September, and similar bills are expected to be introduced in numerous states in the next year.

“Our survey directly contradicts results reported by an electronics industry survey conducted by the EIA,” observed WCRC citizen activist Suellen Mele. “It made no sense that consumers would rather pay significant shipping and handling charges for an Internet purchase in order to avoid a much smaller fee that helps them and the environment. We wanted to check it ourselves. And we really aren’t surprised by the results.”

Founded in 1972, the WCRC is a nonprofit citizen-based advocacy group working to keep Washington a leader in waste reduction, recycling and use of recycled products. Plans are underway to release A Citizen’s Guide to Producer Responsibility, which will provide useful information and resources on the issues of electronics waste and recycling. Free copies of the guide will be available by contacting WCRC at 206-675-0836 or via e-mail:

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