June 21, 2001 5:40 PM PDT

Electronics makers to launch recycling study

Consumer-electronics makers are taking a first step toward a large-scale recycling program for PCs, peripherals, monitors and television sets.

The Electronic Industries Alliance on Thursday announced a pilot project for the collection and recycling of electronic devices. The one-year project, scheduled to begin in October, is intended to provide data to help guide the creation of a cost-effective, more permanent system.

"The pilot is going to test different models in different parts of the country, and we'll use information gained to develop a long-term recycling program," said Kerry Fennelly, a spokeswoman for the trade association.

Participants include Hewlett-Packard and Sony, both of which recently started recycling programs of their own. HP last month launched a fee-based service that lets consumers and businesses arrange for pick up of obsolete electronics goods. Sony's is a five-year program with the state of Minnesota that began last October.

Electronics recycling is a topic that got short shrift through the boom years of the high-tech industry. In recent months, however, it has been the object of increasing attention among local, state and national governments and environmental groups, as well as among manufacturers.

A central issue in discussions of recycling has been the cost of collecting, sorting, refurbishing and recycling obsolete electronic devices. The companies participating in this pilot will provide the bulk of the funding for the recycling plans under consideration, the EIA said.

Not exactly aluminum cans
Any recycling program that emerges from this study will have to contend with the many different types of materials that go into devices such as PCs and television sets, including several strains of plastic, metal and glass.

"Generally speaking, mixed-material take-back systems are tricky," said H. Scott Matthews, research director at Carnegie Mellon University's Green Design Initiative. "It's tough to turn a profit even if you have a subsidy."

In addition, some of those materials, such as lead, can be toxic when released into the environment. That consideration--along with the sheer volume of electronics entering the waste stream--has prompted the European Union to draft legislation that would mandate the take-back of electronic goods by manufacturers and the elimination of some of those substances.

Considering the options
The exact locations of the trial have yet to be set, but the plan is for it to take place in several states. The program will look at three models for collection and recycling: municipal, retail and consumer drop-off.

In the first model, municipalities collect used electronics and transport them to a designated recycler, which is reimbursed by participating companies. In the second, the industry provides funds to participating retail outlets based on the number of relevant products sold; retailers hold collection events and transport the materials to recyclers. In the third, industry funds pay for promotion, education, coupons and rebates; retailers charge consumers a drop-off fee for each product brought in.

"We really want to get more data to understand what models work and what our customers want," said Renee St. Denis, product recycling solutions manager at HP.

This program is likely to be the largest such recycling project in the United States so far, in terms of geography, manufacturers and business models. Earlier studies have tended to focus on a single state or manufacturer or on smaller-scale county and local efforts. IBM, though, began a nationwide recycling service for computers last fall, which, like HP's, charges consumers a fee for returning the systems.

The reach of the new project "is going to allow us to look at other things," St. Denis said. "There have been other pilots, but they've been point programs, doing it one way or another."

Also participating in the program are Canon, JVC, Eastman Kodak, Nokia, Panasonic, Phillips Electronics and Sharp, among others.

The more, the merrier
The success of the project will ride in large part on its ability to draw in a lot of people, according to recycling experts.

"The No. 1 issue with any sort of municipal-level recycling project of any kind...is scale and participation," said Carnegie Mellon's Matthews, adding that collection and recycling rates for electronic devices tend to be small. "The logistics are pretty expensive."

Companies such as IBM and HP have long had in-house recycling programs to handle computers and other electronic devices, but recycling of electronics by consumers and all but the largest businesses is a field still in its infancy. This pilot is likely to help manufacturers get a sense of what works.

"They should at the very least come up with a preferred method for the electronics industry--what's best for them," Matthews said. "They'll pick the one that loses the least money and go full force into doing that."

In Europe, meanwhile, the EU's legislation is making its way through the last stages of parliamentary debate and fine-tuning, and would go into effect 18 months after final approval, according to an EU representative. Several countries in Europe already have laws addressing electronics recycling, as does Japan. These directives have been seen as a key force behind moves by manufacturers to adopt electronics recycling programs.

"There's still debate on how we're going to handle this," said Mark Small, vice president of environmental affairs at Sony. "We (manufacturers) need to focus more on the recycling end and encourage government to get involved on the collection end."

 

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