Manufacturers Address Hazards of E-Waste

Technology companies are trying to stay ahead of changing environmental regulations by getting serious about recycling electronics equipment. Computer and electronics manufacturers are now reaching out to consumers and revving up their own recycling efforts to reduce the tonnage that ends up decaying in landfills.

The rate of replacing mobile phones and computers is increasing every year, resulting in the mounting problem of how to get rid the old stuff after upgrading. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, two million tons of electronic waste is put into landfills every year, and in 2005, more than 130 million cell phones will be discarded.

In most of the U.S., there are no laws preventing consumers from placing cell phones, computers, monitors and printers curbside for disposal, and for many, that's the path of least resistance. For example, according to the EPA, just ll percent of the PCs discarded in 2001 were recycled.

However, three states -- Maine, Minnesota and Massachusetts -- have passed legislation in the past year that bans mingling computer monitors, also known as CRTs (cathode ray tubes) with everyday refuse. Beginning in July, Californians will pay a fee of between $6 and $10, depending on the size of the display, when they purchase a computer screen to pay for the cost of recycling. CRTs have been targeted because they contain leaded glass, which according to the EPA is hazardous waste.

Realizing that legislators are becoming increasingly interested in regulating electronic waste, a consortium of consumer electronics companies is drafting rules for proposed legislation that would fund recycling programs. The National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) has 15 member companies, including Dell, Epson, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic, Sharp and Sony.

David Isaacs, director of government and public policy at Hewlett-Packard said that NEPSI has been meeting for two years to build consensus on a recycling policy that would meet the approval of the states, federal government and environmentalists. Isaacs said Hewlett-Packard favors shared responsibility between consumers, manufacturers and government agencies, and believes that rule changes are needed. "Voluntary initiatives to promote recycling won't likely solve the problem without legislative help," said Isaacs. "For some people bundling newspapers is too much of a hassle."

"We think that mandates should keep electronics equipment out of landfills and redirect them towards the recycling stream," he said. However, Isaacs warned that achieving consensus in the group might not be possible. "The industry is not of one mind." Isaacs said Hewlett-Packard would rather absorb the cost of recycling, and does not favor placing recycling fees on new equipment.

Hewlett-Packard is one of the few industry players that operates its own recycling centers. The company accepts computer products from any manufacturer and recycles them at facilities in California and Tennessee.

In addition to helping the environment, recycling can be good business for electronics manufacturers. According to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, the electronics recycling industry in the U.S. includes more than 400 companies and employs more than 7000 workers. The $700 million industry processes over 1.5 billion pounds of electronic equipment annually, yielding approximately 900 million pounds of recyclable materials.

Manufacturers themselves can turn a profit by participating in recycling. Kyocera Wireless made $1.14 million in 2003 by accepting old cell phones and sending them off to be recycled, according to Kyocera Wireless director of quality standards John Knudsen. Knudsen said the company's goal is "zero percent industrial waste." Kyocera Wireless recycles the cell phone batteries, plastic housings, circuit card assemblies, and trace metals.

Kyocera Wireless won two awards in 2004 for the recycling practices used at its San Diego headquarters from the city, according to Knudsen. He said the company conducts two recycling awareness weeks each year to encourage community members to participate.

Kyocera ships the cell phones designated for recycling to Metech of Mapleville, RI. Metech tests the cell phones it receives to evaluate the composition of metals, and then sends them to smelting plants in Japan and Europe, according to Metech marketing manager Jim Gardner. Gardner said that no smelting is done in the U.S. because the cost of meeting environmental regulations is too high and the profit margin too low. Gardner said that governments in Asia and Europe subsidize the recycling process, which helps to create jobs. "It's a philosophical difference," in governments supporting recycling, Gardner said.

Dell Computer is in the process of handing out $120,000 to community groups that sponsor local recycling events, said Tod Arbogast, Dell's senior manager of asset recovery services. Dell sponsored three events during Earth Day week this year as part of the Dell Recycling Grant Program that attempts to keep computers and related equipment out of landfills. Dell conducted 17 recycling events during 2003 that helped divert more than 100 tons of equipment from going into landfills, Arbogast said.

"One day events aren't the answer, but they are a great way to make consumers aware of recycling programs," said Arbogast. Arbogast said that each Dell printer includes a coupon that enables customers to recycle their old units for free. Dell, like Hewlett-Packard and other computer manufacturers, will pick up computer equipment for recycling for a small fee. Arbogast said the fees are not "huge contributors to the bottom line," but they do defray some of the cost of recycling.

Companies may not have the option of whether or not to recycle for long. A recent study being reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that computers, monitors and cell phones under certain conditions would release lead in sufficient quantities to have them classified as hazardous waste, which would require special handling for disposal. The laboratory study, which was completed by the Solid and Hazardous Waste Studies department of the University of Florida, "found that lead leached at high enough concentrations under the EPA regulatory test to be classified as hazardous waste," according to University of Florida professor Timothy Townsend, who oversaw the test.

Townsend said the EPA test uses extreme conditions to determine how much lead could potentially seep into a landfill. He said that the test, which has been maligned by some scientists, simulates "not necessarily normal conditions." However, Townsend said the test is useful in showing that lead that is bound into materials, such as CRTs and lead solder used in manufacturing computers, could decompose and enter the ecosystem. Townsend will finish his report next month, and is conducting a new round of tests using a small-scale landfill.

The EPA is peer reviewing the University of Florida report, but will wait until it is in a final form before deciding on taking any action, according to Marilyn Goode, environmental protection specialist at the EPA. Goode said that in 2002 the EPA proposed classifying CRTs as hazardous waste, and drafted a final rule that will likely go into effect in 2005.

Goode said that "computer manufacturers have been working hard on rules and voluntary procedures for taking back electronics components. They have been very cooperative in defining standards and practices."

John Gartner writes about environmental technology and alternative energy from his home in Philadelphia.

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