Consumers may bear PC recycling costs

Electronics makers move a step closer to factoring the cost of recycling into the price tag that the consumer sees when shopping for a new PC or television.

Electronics makers have moved a step closer to incorporating the cost of recycling in new PCs, computer peripherals and TV sets, according to an agreement reached last week.

The agreement, developed in a forum that includes computer and consumer-electronics manufacturers including Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer and Sony Electronics, calls for the development of a "front-end financed system" to support the collection, reuse and recycling of used electronic devices. That is, if the system is eventually adopted, the cost would likely be factored in to the price tag that the consumer sees when shopping for a new PC or television.

The pact comes out of a meeting last week of the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, or NEPSI, a collective of high-tech companies, government agencies and others. The group aims to have a final, more detailed and nationwide system developed later this year.

"We see this as significant progress, but there are still quite a lot of issues to resolve between now and September, when we hope to have a voluntary agreement signed by government agencies, manufacturers, retailers, environmental groups and other stakeholders," said Scott Cassel, director of the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "We have agreed to move forward, and we look forward to an agreement in September that has more meat on the bones."

While price is a contentious detail yet to be worked out in what could be an industrywide policy, current product take-back programs run by individual companies such as HP, IBM and Best Buy have generally charged about $30 or less for consumers to dispose of older electronic goods that they no longer want. Also, still to be determined is when exactly such a system would take effect and how best to parcel out the costs and responsibilities of dealing with obsolete electronics among manufacturers, retailers, governments and consumers.

NEPSI's national dialogue on recycling matters began about a year ago, as the high-tech industry contemplated the possibility of government-mandated fees and take-back requirements. Last month, two California senators introduced bills targeting electronic waste.

By September, Cassel said, NEPSI also hopes to address the issue of scrap electronics, or "e-waste," being exported overseas, which a recent report lambasted as "a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution."

"All the NEPSI stakeholders were very disheartened to learn that a great deal of the used equipment that we collect diligently and with good intent has resulted in the pollution of Third World countries," Cassel said.