Green: The Color Of Money

Consumer Electronics Face The Dark Side

Kenneth Stier,|Features Writer

The prodigious American consumer electronics industry may be providing consumers with somewhat more ‘eco-friendly’ products, but it remains an industry with a dark side: mountains of toxic e-waste. (Video: Mountains of e-waste in the Chinese countryside)

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More than 80 percent of what’s discarded ends up in landfills or incinerators; the rest gets ‘recycled’ but about 80 percent of this is actually exported, wherein the hazardous materials contained in these products are handled in unregulated working conditions. 

“We are not really recycling e-waste in the US,” says Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. “We are solving our e-waste problem here by dumping it in other countries, basically, with some pretty horrific exposure resulting of workers and communities – that’s the baseline we need to move from.”

Even with that, e-waste remains a major problem at home. Though it represents only two percent of all US municipal waste, it is growing five times faster than any other component.

In 2007, Americans discarded 289.1 million TVs, VCRs, computers, monitors and cell phones  – 2.63 million pounds’ worth - nearly 8 percent more than in 2006, according to industry figures.

What Companies Are Doing

None other than retail giantWal-Mart ,which sells millions of electronics good and is thus a major player in the chain, has taken up the cause, warning in a recent web posting: “E-waste is quickly becoming a major issue across the United States,” prompted by greater awareness of its threat to soil and groundwater.

Clearly, it hopes the message will sink in. After all, 40 percent of the lead found in US landfills is traced to electronics.

It’s an issue industry is beginning to grapple with. Dell now has a free take back program, while Apple's program is more limited and Toshiba's only applies to laptops. Last year, Hewlett-Packard reached a milestone of having recycled 1 billion pounds of electronics since the inception of its efforts in 1987. HP vows to duplicate that by the end of 2010.

Wal-Mart, for its part, has collected 1.75 million pounds of unwanted electronics through ‘Take Back’ days in its parking lots

Progress aside, these are exceedingly low rates – generally one to two percent of what is being sold.

Most voluntary programs are aimed at computers that contain more precious metals than TVs, which cost $30 to recycle and yield less of a return.

That’s why critics expect a tidal wave of analog TVs when the US goes digital in 2009.  “They are making billions on this conversion and yet they are doing nothing to solve the problem and doing everything to add to it,” says Kyle of the manufacturers.

Sony recently trumped such criticisms by announcing a commitment to recycle as much as it sells into the market - pound for pound. That is the industry’s current gold standard green commitment. 

But it’s unclear when that might be possible. Sony is setting up a recycling network it hopes will put most Americans within 20 miles of a drop-off center within five years, according to Doug Smith, VP for environmental affairs, health and safety.

Nevertheless, given the industry's track record, skepticism remains.

“They will always opt to make it the cheapest and most cost effective way versus making the way it is recyclable,” says Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. “Computers have valuable materials in them but because they have not been designed to be recycled, they are expensive to recycle.”

That may be changing. European Union regulations have led to such dramatic reductions in heavy metal use that some regard the industry’s challenge as largely a legacy pollution problem because of the vast number of older, more harmful units that have accumulated.

Indeed, industry tends to see e-waste as a “resource conservation issue...not a hazardous waste issue,” says Parker Brugge, Consumer Electronics Association's VP, Environmental Affairs and Corporate Sustainability. The group maintains that landfills can safely handle e-waste, a view largely shared by the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Jeff Omelchuck, director of the Green Electronics Council, is encouraged by the evolving adoption of “environmentally preferred” standards by leading IT companies, as part of an EPA-funded (EPEAT) program to develop a “green computer.”

The changes, driven by the the federal government’s formidable purchasing clout (about 7 percent of the IT market), have substantially boosted the amount of material that can be recycled from computers, apparently without incurring higher costs.

But since a large portion of what is considered “recycled” actually ends up fueling copper smelters, the "whole notion of recycling" needs refining, he acknowledges.

Creating A System

Far preferable though would be industry-wide mandates, such as the 30-percent recycling target the European Union has established.

Though companies increasingly favor industry-wide mandates, sharp differences over how to pay for genuine recycling has blocked agreement.

Environmentalists want the system to be based on “producer responsibility” in order to drive “green design,” while industry says intense competition and narrow margins in the industry makes it hard to pass on the costs.

“The problem is that every single method disadvantages somebody, including some of the very largest, most powerful players who in general have been able to totally stymie the development of a comprehensive program even though every body knows we need one," explains Omelchuck.

The result is the existing, confusing patchwork of state and local regulations, which is a metastasizing administrative and operational burden for companies.

Nowadays, “they are doing every thing they can, except support a system that works,” says Omelchuck. “This is more than a nuisance, I think it is a long-term disaster for industry."