Electronics wasteor e-waste
as Californians have dubbed ithas 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 billsthe manufacturersare
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 two to four
percent 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 percent who said their television stopped working in the last
five years, only 21 percent had them repaired and another 20 percent
put them in storage. More than 60 percent of households have a computer
and 33 percent 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 2002from 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 worlds
largest and fastest-growing manufacturing industry, and due to the
high rates of product obsolescence, electronic waste (e-waste) is
growing rapidly. Only three percent of discarded computers are directed
for reuse. About 50 to 80
percent 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 societys awareness of disposal
options: a recent study from the State of Florida indicates that
81 percent of consumers are not even aware you can recycle computers,
and that the majority64 percentare 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 percent of
old computers sent for recycling in the U.S. are subsequently exported
to Asia. SVTCs 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 todays 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 annuallybut
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 percent 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 cordfrom 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 wont 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. Japans 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
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
televisionstook 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 companiesIBM, Hewlett-Packard,
Dell and othershave 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 hoppersmany 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
U.S. companies are frequently hamstrung because of quarterly profit
mandatesthe 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
didnt 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 Europes 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 companys Electronics Recycling:
What to Expect from Global Mandates, a report that was updated in
late 2003. The issues will also be discussed at the Take it Back!
WEST 2004 conference to be held March 1 to 3, 2004. For information,
or call 301-345 4237.