Companies look to recycle PC castoffs

Electronics makers are putting cash into a yearlong study to determine how best to collect used PCs and electronics devices for recycling, reuse and disposal.

5 min read
Industry dollars will soon start flowing into pilot programs looking at the best way to handle an expected avalanche of obsolete computers and other consumer electronics products.

The Electronic Industries Alliance announced on Monday that it has earmarked the funds--approximately $100,000--for a yearlong study to determine how best to collect used electronics for recycling, reuse and disposal. The grants will go to three recipients: the state of Florida, the 10-state Northeast Recycling Council and the Environmental Protection Agency's Region III, which covers Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington D.C.

Companies participating in the program include electronics device makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Sony Electronics, Nokia, Canon, Philips Consumer Electronics, Panasonic and Sharp. The money for the grants comes out of their pockets.

The focus of the study is on household electronics rather than corporate gear.

"The concern is that consumers do not have an opportunity for these materials" to be most effectively disposed of, said Holly Evans, director of environmental affairs at the EIA.

The initiative is a timely one. After more than a decade of heavy consumer--and corporate--spending on computers, printers and related gadgets, along with continued purchases of everything from TV sets to toasters, electronic devices are poised to be thrown away in unprecedented numbers. In the late 1990s, some 20 million PCs became obsolete each year in the United States, with higher numbers likely to follow, according to a study by the National Safety Council.

"Consumers demanded electronic equipment. We wanted it; we embraced it; we wanted it cheaper and faster, and the industry gave it to us," said Raoul Clarke, an environmental administrator in Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. "Now there's a hell of a lot of it out there. The question is what to do with it, and who bears the cost?"

Poisonous PCs
Besides the volume involved--some 2 million tons per year in the United States--the equipment may pose environmental hazards if not properly disposed of, according to watchdog organizations. PC monitors, for instance, can contain several pounds of lead, and circuit boards harbor lead, mercury, arsenic and flame-retardant chemicals.

For the moment, most of the defunct devices lie in wait, and the buildup has state and local agencies--those that are charged with collecting and disposing of waste--worried about the costs and logistics of disposal.

"For government officials, the problem of waste electronics is an immediate one," said Scott Cassel, director of the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. "Not only is technology forcing more products into the waste stream, but consumer demand is increasing on the government finding solutions, and some officials are concerned about starting programs without having money for them in the long run."

"We're interested in seeing what can be done through the private sector so that these materials don't enter the municipal waste stream," said Sego Jackson, principal planner in the solid-waste-management division of Snohomish County, Wash.

Manufacturers are worried, too. National governments in Japan and a number of European countries have started demanding that those companies that make and sell electronic devices take responsibility for them when they reach the "end of life" stage--that is, when an outmoded PC, say, gets set aside for a shinier, speedier model.

Manufacturers are looking for more detailed information about whose products are moving into the waste stream, what the frequency is, how they're being disposed of, and so on. To date, most studies of electronics recycling have been done on a tiny scale--often involving just a single manufacturer, retailer, city or county.

In addition, PC makers including HP and IBM, and retailer Best Buy, have launched take-back programs in the last year, charging consumers a fee of as much as $34 to return old electronics. And October marks the first anniversary of a Minnesota-based collection program--with no charge to consumers--that Sony is conducting along with Panasonic and Sharp.

The EIA initiative is an attempt to broaden the scope of the data collection and, at the same time, to gather well-structured information. Manufacturers, for instance, know how much of a given product they've sold, but don't know their share of what's being thrown away. They also want to get a sense of how much "orphan" equipment is out there--electronics gear from companies that are no longer in business and thus can't chip in to help with the cleanup.

Waste and what works
"We recognize that our program, good as it is, might not be the only approach," said David Isaacs, manager of government policy at HP. "That's why we want to play an active role (in the EIA effort) and see what works."

The grants must be used to fund recycling of household electronic equipment or data collection and assessment, with the equipment limited to computers, computer peripherals, TV sets, and CRT and LCD monitors. The EIA is looking at two basic models: municipal and retail.

In the first model, local governments would collect the used electronics, either through curbside pickup or through consumer drop-off at collection centers. In the second, retailers would collect the goods through promotional events or by taking them in when someone buys a new product to replace an older model.

EPA Region III, for instance, plans to use EIA grant money to defray costs in its e-Cycling Project--set to be launched Saturday--which is intended to help local and municipal governments and retailers collect used electronics and arrange for them to be recycled. NERC plans to implement an electronics recycling program in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont as it tests multistate collaboration, regional collection strategies and transportation cost models in rural areas.

"These pilots are a way for industry to get greater experience in an area that state and local agencies already have considerable experience," Cassel said. "There are still some models, particularly collecting through a retailer, for which the government agencies are interested in gaining additional experience."

Despite the pilot programs that have already been done, the field of study is largely a new one, and all participants say there's still much to learn.

"When the manufacturer and the retailer are involved in the system, that's really new stuff, and that deserves a lot more attention," Jackson said. "It's challenging for them to realize they might want to handle their products in a completely different way than industry has in the past, so it's an opportunity for very visionary work on their behalf."

Many recycling specialists in government and industry say that, in the long run, the financing of electronics disposal will be shared among government agencies, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

The grantees were chosen in part because of their acceptance of a shared-responsibility model, according to the EIA's Evans. They also had existing programs, treated electronics as commodities rather than as hazardous waste, and were willing to pitch in their own money along with the industry funds, she said.

The combining of funds can only help, participants say.

"Where the money is needed is when (those who are doing the collection) call up the recycler and say, 'Come and get this stuff,'" Clarke said. "That's where the bills start coming in."