Electronics TakeBack Coalition Promotes Producer Responsibility
Recycling electronic waste is essential, but whose responsibility should it be? Contributing writer Caryn Green considers the question in the fifth post in her series on e-waste . — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Our home stands on top of a toxic waste dump.
And if you’re stockpiling obsolete electronics in the house, so does yours.
That clunky old CRT computer monitor or TV that’s currently collecting dust in the basement, attic, closet, or garage contains anywhere from 4 to 8 pounds of lead. The new flatscreen LCD monitor you replaced it with contains far less lead, so you might think it would be safer for the environment.
Actually, it’s not.
Mercury lamps light the flatscreen’s panels: 20 or more thin, fragile mercury bulbs that are impossible to remove without first disassembling the entire unit — a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. It’s much easier and cheaper to throw the whole thing into a shredder or incinerator (or shipping container) — exposing recycling workers to mercury, and ultimately allowing toxins and heavy metals to leach into the atmosphere and groundwater.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), electronic waste is the fastest-growing source of waste in the solid waste stream in the U.S. The agency estimates we scrap more than 400 million individual units a year, weighing in at more than 3 million tons and counting. The load will only increase as rapid advances in technology and the obsolescence of millions of analog TVs create the “need” to replace older, perfectly functional units.
What happens to outdated electronics? We’re storing upwards of 2.35 million units in our homes, the EPA estimates. When we get tired of looking at them, most of them will end up in an incinerator or landfill — which is far from what should happen. Only about 15–20% of electronic waste is recycled. Of that amount, anywhere from 50–80% ends up being shipped overseas to be dismantled under unsafe conditions, harming the people and environment of the recipient countries.
Whose job is it to safely dispose of all this waste? The member organizations of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) believe that responsibility should ultimately rest with the producers. Founded in Silicon Valley in 2001, this national environmental coalition supports industry reforms and state legislation promoting “producer takeback” laws for electronics. “We have a basic three-point platform,” explains Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator of the ETBC. “Take it back. Make it green. And recycle responsibly.”
By shifting the cost of recycling from taxpayers to manufacturers, the regulations provide financial incentives for producers to redesign their products, making them less toxic and making their recycling both easier and cheaper. “The way to encourage green design from the outset is to make manufacturers responsible for their products throughout the entire product life cycle, ” Kyle says.
While a number of manufacturers offer voluntary recycling programs, most of them don’t actually collect significant volumes of e-waste, according to Kyle. “The real activity is in states where strong producer-responsibility laws are enforced,” she says.
Currently, 19 states and New York City have enacted Extended Producer Responsibility legislation — producer takeback laws — requiring manufacturers to provide for environmentally safe management of their product at the end of its useful life.
California collects a recycling fee on covered electronics at the time of purchase, passing the cost directly to the product’s end consumer. The burden rests with the manufacturer in all other states, presumably to be passed along to consumers in price increases.
Predictably, the manufacturers aren’t readily complying. Electronics industry associations have filed suit against the City of New York, challenging the municipal e-waste ordinances as “onerous” and unconstitutional.
Producers are trying to shift regulating authority to the federal government where, it is perceived, regulation would be less stringent. In response, various states and local governments have stepped into the fray, issuing a joint statement organized by the Coalition that, by seeking federal regulation, the electronics industry is “trying to usurp states’ rights.”
As the entities responsible for keeping our streets and cities clean, “the states and local municipalities always pass tougher laws,” Kyle says. “They’re the ones holding the bag.”
ETBC favors state regulation of e-waste, while also promoting the passage of federal legislation to restrict its export. “We’re hopeful that this Congress will address the e-waste export problem,” she says. “We urge Congress to pass legislation that ensures we aren’t exporting our e-waste problem to other countries. We’d like to see a law enacted at the federal level that closes the door on global dumping.”
With a roster of partner organizations such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition — ETBC’s founder — as well as the Basel Action Network, Center for Environmental Health, Clean Production Action, Clean Water Action, and Texas Campaign for the Environment, and high-profile member organizations that include the Environmental Law and Policy Center, and Natural Resources Defense Council, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition is starting to see some encouraging results.
The group applauds Hewlett-Packard’s February 12 announcement of a policy that prohibits export of toxic electronic waste to any developing country. “This shows that HP is an environmental leader in this industry,” says Kyle. “A number of producers have responsible export policies. But any manufacturer or recycler who is unwilling to provide proof of where they are shipping recycled materials is asking the consumer to make a leap of faith.”
For that reason, Kyle advises that consumers recycle only with e-Steward-certified recyclers, who have gone through a rigorous 3rd-party vetting process.
Initially targeting computer waste, the ETBC started focusing on television manufacturers when they announced the planned conversion to the digital signal. “They forced us to give up perfectly good working equipment because they decided we NEED high definition TV,” Kyle says. “Three years ago, not one TV company was doing voluntary takebacks.” Now, some of them have launched national recycling programs, including Sony, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba. ETBC publishes an annual TV recycling scorecard.
Recycling programs will succeed if they’re profitable. Is there any chance they could be? “Sony found a way to make the economics work,” Kyle says. “When recycling reaches a high enough volume, it’s possible it could be cost-neutral,” providing hope that a time will come when producers will be able to recapture the cost of responsible recycling from the savings generated by reusing the materials.
To that end, ETBC intends to keep working toward the passage of state laws to enforce producer responsibility. At the same time, they’ll continue to exert pressure directly on the industry and on large-scale, institutional purchasers to do business with tech companies that meet EPA “EPEAT” standards — a system of grading IT equipment that meets specified criteria.
Kyle looks forward to a time when manufacturers will get on board with green design and responsible recycling because they believe it’s good practice, not because some state is mandating compliance.
“A robust voluntary program will be the real sign that we’re moving in the direction we need to go,” Kyle says.
Part 5: Electronics TakeBack Coalition Promotes Producer Responsibility (Top of Page)