Is a national 'e-cycling' solution possible?

Electronics exec Matt Flanigan says current state-by-state approach is piecemeal and random with neither rhyme nor reason.

4 min read
If you haven't bought a TV or computer in the past year, odds are you know someone who has.

New features, falling prices, improved quality and America's fondness for these products have led to strong demand that shows no sign of waning. While both product lines enjoy a long shelf life and a vibrant secondary market, they eventually become obsolete.

Everyone agrees they should be managed properly, but the debate over how that's done and who foots the bill has blocked efforts to implement a national plan for recycling electronics.

Business models for TV and computer manufacturers are as different as the uses for their products. So finding one set of rules that's fair for dozens of companies has been a real challenge. A system that benefits new market entrants that may or may not exist years from now when their products become obsolete and penalizes companies with millions of products already in use--or vice versa--could grossly distort the marketplace.

Recently, our industry stepped in to bridge that gap, announcing the first consensus proposal endorsed by computer and TV manufacturers to meet the nation's electronics recycling challenge (see the Electronic Industries Alliance Web site). This plan would pave the way for federal legislation establishing a national program.

The industry framework calls for a bifurcated financing approach, separating TVs from desktop computers, laptops and computer monitors to reflect their divergent business models, market composition and consumer base.

The electronics industry is going green across the entire product life cycle, and establishing a national e-cycling program is a natural next step.

TVs have an expected life cycle of 15 to 17 years and are purchased by individual consumers from retailers. New entrants can rapidly gain a significant share of the market only to disappear a few years later. Under the EIA proposal, TV collection and recycling would be primarily conducted by an industry-sponsored third-party organization and initially supported by a nominal fee paid by consumers at the point of purchase. Once a significant number of so-called "legacy" sets are recovered, the fee would expire.

IT equipment has an expected life cycle of six to eight years and is more often sold directly to the consumer. The EIA proposal calls for each producer of IT equipment to implement a program to collect and recycle its products in a manner that is convenient for household consumers and at no cost to them.

All programs, whether for televisions or IT equipment, will have to ensure that they rely solely on service providers that satisfy established environmentally sound management standards and business practices.

Eight states have enacted electronics recycling laws that vary dramatically, picking winners and losers among electronics manufacturers and retailers, and many other states are considering laws of their own. We need a more consistent, workable approach.

So far, the overall response to this proposal has been encouraging. U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and chairwoman of the Congressional E-Waste Working Group, called it "a critical step in our efforts to write a federal bill this year." In an editorial titled, "At last, a step forward," Waste News said it was "a strong first step to addressing America's growing e-waste crisis." One TreeHugger.com columnist wrote that, "since the proposal captures both the 'consumer pays' and 'corporate pays' models that are currently in use, it's probably a good idea.?

Two other environmental provisions within the framework are worth noting. One calls for meeting the materials restrictions established by the European Union's Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive and a similar California statute. The RoHS Directive has become the de facto worldwide standard, and our companies strongly support one consistent set of requirements.

In addition, the proposal says Congress should codify a requirement that the federal government purchase environmentally preferable IT equipment, such as those products meeting the Standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products (the EPEAT standard), which was the subject of an executive order President Bush signed in January. State governments and other public institutions such as hospitals and universities should adopt similar policies.

The electronics industry is going green across the entire product life cycle, and establishing a national e-cycling program is a natural next step. The EIA framework offers Congress the means to do it. In the interim, an informed consumer is the best resource. Any American can find convenient recycling options by going to the E-cycling Central Web site.

This is an issue crying out for a national solution. If 50 legislatures rewrite business models state by state, consumers could see higher costs and fewer choices--all without any commensurate environmental benefit.