Conflict: A world of problems
Once a week, a truck stops at a facility run by the Public Service Enterprise Group in Paulsboro, N.J., loaded with desktop computers, laptops, fax machines, photocopiers, television sets and video recorders.
Many of the computers will be fully refurbished, getting clean hard drives, repaired motherboards, and even some elbow grease to wipe away unsightly smudges. The remaining hardware that is deemed
"For all our waste, there is no waste," said Gary Wohler, investment recovery specialist of Public Service Enterprise. Last year, the energy services company recycled 766 computers, 814 monitors and 31 printers this way.
It is a telling sign that a truck loaded with expensive electronics is working for the sake of environmentalism in a place like New Jersey--home to the "Sopranos" and a state not widely known for its ecological sensitivities. But New Jersey is one of a handful of states with an activist bent, putting increasing pressure on electronics makers to address what some circles see as a worldwide environmental threat. And Wohler's company is one of many that has discovered recycling religion.
Two decades after becoming perhaps the most indispensable fixture of the modern workplace, the personal computer is confronting an ugly and unavoidable truth: As with all other electronic devices powering the Information Age, it will eventually end up like any other product--in the garbage heap. In fact, watchdog groups say PCs are going out of service faster than they are being produced.
"Most of these things are still sitting on shelves or in warehouses," said Jeffrey Tumarkin, team leader at the Environmental Protection Agency's WasteWise program, which has some 1,100 participants, from Anheuser Busch and Eastman Kodak
Regulators, corporations and environmental groups around the globe are struggling to decide how to dispose of a seemingly endless supply of PCs and who should be held responsible for keeping tons of hazardous waste out of the environment. Although concerns over discarded computers have been voiced for years, the debate is coming to a head with the threat--and increasing actuality--of government action worldwide.
State and national governments and environmental groups are pointing to PC makers to take responsibility. But companies argue that their counterparts in other industries, such as automakers, are not held similarly accountable for their junked products. Moreover, the issue could not come at a worse time for computer hardware manufacturers, which have been squeezed by eroding profit margins and an overall slowdown in the technology industry.
Legislation pending in the European Union, for instance, "would be very costly," said John Minter, environmental affairs representative at Dell Computer. "Somehow, manufacturers would be incurring that cost."
As the debate continues, the pile of old PCs keeps growing. The National Safety Council estimates that, in 2002 alone, the number of PCs becoming obsolete will outrun the number of new PCs hitting the market by some 3.4 million. Overall, the EPA estimates, computers and other electronic equipment account for about 2 million tons of waste per year in the United States.
And volume is only the beginning of the ecological issues posed by decaying PCs. The machinery also contains elements like lead, mercury and arsenic that can be classified as hazardous waste.
"We're not talking Love Canal, but we are talking about some real potential problems," said H. Scott Matthews, research director in the Green Design Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, referring to the Niagara Falls, N.Y., toxic waste scandal of the 1970s.
Given such important health issues, government agencies and environmental groups say their main concern is with proper disposal, an issue that defies easy solutions. Once the machines are past the point of being resold in corporate garage sales or donated to charitable groups, that means recycling--separating the raw materials to be processed for reuse--and containing hazardous materials.
A first step in a cooperative approach came last month when representatives of government, industry and environmental groups met to establish the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative. In a series of discussions over the course of the next year, the 45 participants aim to come to an agreement on a system for electronics disposal. Other issues, including hazardous materials and product design, remain highly contentious and will not be on the table.
The goal is to figure out "how to get from what some say is an 11 percent (rate of) recycling and reuse to a much higher number, and over what period of time," said Gary Davis, director of the Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who is serving as the moderator for the discussions. "Everyone agrees that it needs to increase, and so we're starting from here."
Although they support recycling efforts, computer makers say consumers must shoulder a large part of the burden for those initiatives to succeed. Companies such as IBM, Dell Computer and Sony Electronics have recently launched recycling and reuse programs aimed primarily at consumers, and the Electronic Industries Alliance trade group has drafted an initiative on the issue.
Their work is something of a pre-emptive strike. The industry, which has historically clamored against any government supervision, wants to avoid having bureaucrats in Washington, Tokyo, Brussels or Boston tell it what to do on the issue.
"Either we solve the problem ourselves as an industry, or we'll have government try to solve the problem," said Mark Small, vice president of environmental affairs at Sony.
Many governments appear willing to do just that.
The International Association of Electronics Recyclers reports that nine countries already have corporate "take back" laws for discarded electronics--including computers in some cases--and that 22 more countries will join them within five years. In Japan, for example, a law went into effect last month requiring manufacturers to take back used TVs, refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners. Computer equipment isn't covered in the law but could be in the future.
In the United States, 45 mercury-related and 21 electronics bills have been introduced at the state level, with bills in Oregon and Arkansas proposing fees on the purchase of PCs to pay for recycling, according to the association. April marked the first anniversary of a law in Massachusetts that bans CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors from landfills, and other states are considering similar measures.
"In the next four years, the issue of computer pollution is going to increase and increase," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "The computer industry is going to have to face this."
Looking to Europe for guidance
The European Parliament this month will have a key vote on legislation that would require electronics manufacturers to phase out elements such as lead and mercury and to take back used products.
"As the (legislation) moves in Europe, that's going to move the debate for the rest of the world," said Dell's Minter.
The WEEE Directive sets a target date of December 2005 to begin annual collection of, on average, at least 9 pounds per inhabitant from private households. A related directive sets January 2008 as the date by which manufacturers must find replacements for lead, mercury and cadmium, as well as for chemicals such as flame retardants that show up in circuit boards and plastic covers.
The EU adheres to what it calls the "polluter pays" principle, according to which electronics makers must be held accountable for treatment, recovery and disposal of their products when they become waste and that private households should be able to return the products free of charge.
This doctrine "means extending the legal, moral and financial responsibility of producers," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an advocacy group focused on the high-tech sector. It is a government's way of telling manufacturers, "your responsibility goes beyond the initial sale and through the life cycle, including disposal," he added.
The costs of recycling
"The recycling targets that were set are pretty high," Minter said. "It's not certain how achievable they are. It's never been done before on this scale."
The EU expects the net costs of its collection and recycling requirements for all household electronic equipment to total between $450 million and $800 million per year in its 15 member states, with commercial equipment adding roughly 20 percent to those costs. For the individual consumer, the requirements would likely mean a premium of about 1 percent for most electronic goods, and as much as 3 percent for monitors, according to EU estimates. That could add some $10 to $50 to the typical price of a PC.
Or the cost could come when consumers get rid of their old equipment. In a recycling program IBM launched last November, the company is charging $29.99 for consumers and small businesses to ship it any brand of PC, monitor, printer or peripheral. Retailer Best Buy, which will be launching its own electronics recycling initiative later this year, charged between $10 and $25 per device in a pilot program last year, according to a spokesman.
"Economies of scale will play a big role," said Tony Hainault, a policy analyst with Minnesota's Office of Environmental Assistance, which worked with Sony to set up a recycling program for the consumer giant's products. "It will be important to collect a large volume of this material to make it cost-effective to recycle."
In the end, as with many environmental issues, the success of computer recycling may rest with the individual.
As the EPA's Tumarkin put it: "We say it's on everyone in the supply chain, from manufacturer to consumer."
Faced with low economic returns on obsolete equipment, computer makers may be tempted to sweep some problems overseas.
Even as programs aim to remove the hazards from electronic scrap--especially CRTs--in the United States and Europe, the temptation exists to send some of this material to lands where regulations are less vexing.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection charges that some companies ship repairable TVs and monitors to countries like Russia with highly trained technicians and "a forgiving resale market."
"Mostly what happens with old monitors is they get shipped to other countries, especially in Asia," said Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. They are shipped as new products, get disassembled and scavenged, and then end up in landfills and incinerators.
While acknowledging the difficulty of finding data to prove its claims, the coalition nonetheless calls e-waste exports "an unknown, dangerous and secretive activity."
The Electronic Industries Alliance refutes the charges. International regulations prohibit dumping, and reputable manufacturers sending any electronic equipment overseas make sure that contracts specify their proper handling, according to Holly Evans, director of environmental affairs for the alliance.
"You always hear horror stories," Evans said. "You don't know whether it's true or not."
But Hewlett-Packard recycling manager Renee St. Denis said that within the industry, it is still a "very common" practice to send old systems overseas. Until about seven years ago, Denis said, HP used to take usable parts such as circuit boards and disk drives out of old computers and then ship the leftovers to China.
The temptation lies in the financial appeal of product disposal. According to one estimate, a pilot program in San Jose found that the cost of shipping CRTs to China was one-tenth that of recycling in the United States.
Exporters pay in the range of 3 cents to 5 cents per pound for spent electronics because they can get a higher price through resale or salvage, St. Denis said. Computer makers, on the other hand, typically pay for recycling to be done.
An international agreement known as the Basel Convention classifies some elements of computer scrap such as mercury switches and glass from CRTs as hazardous waste. The United States, along with Haiti and Afghanistan, has not ratified the convention.
-- Jon Skillings and Erich Luening
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