Hoping to stave off governmental mandates, computer makers are considering the most favorable way to set up an industrywide scheme to promote the recycling of obsolete PCs and related products.
A preliminary decision on a course of action could come next week when industry representatives and state officials sit down in an effort to find common ground. State governments and environmental groups are hoping that manufacturers will take responsibility for computers past the point of sale, while computer makers are looking for regulatory and cost concessions from the states.
The issue of what to do with so-called "end-of-life" electronics has been gathering steam since the mid-1990s and seems set to have come to a head.
PCs in particular, with an average life span of just a few years, are going out of service faster than they are being produced.
"This is a big environmental issue, frankly," said Gordon Hui, an analyst in the Environmental Protection Agency's Extended Product Responsibility program. Computers and other electronics devices are "a growing waste stream," he said.
Recycling initiatives, if they were to start in the near future, would come at a time when computer makers are ill disposed to additional expenses. In recent months, they have been stung by weakening sales growth, and Dell Computer, Compaq Computer and Gateway, among others, have issued earnings warnings or missed estimates.
The showdown is set to take place Thursday, in conjunction with the National Safety Council's Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling (EPR2) Conference in Arlington, Va.
"EPR2 is kind of the stage for getting everybody together," said Holly Evans, director of environmental affairs at the Electronic Industries Alliance trade group.
In 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, more than 20 million PCs became obsolete in the United States alone, of which only 2.3 million units, or 11 percent, were recycled, according to a landmark study by the NSC.
The aging equipment has the attention of researchers, bureaucrats and activists not only because of the volumes involved. Computers, monitors and other high-tech gadgets are loaded with heavy metals--such as lead, mercury and cadmium--and plastics that could pose a threat to environmental and human health if they are not properly disposed of.
A "politically pressing" issue
The European Parliament is so concerned about what it calls a "politically pressing" issue that this year it is set to pass legislation that would require electronics manufacturers to take back used products and phase potential hazardous wastes out of their wares.
"The states are starting to look at the issue a lot more, and I think it's in reaction to what's going on over in Europe," said John Minter, Dell's environmental affairs representative.
"Lots of people are anxiously awaiting what's happening (in Europe), and manufacturers are trying to get out front with recycling programs and things like that," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Confronted with rising expectations that they should do something about aging machines, several top PC and consumer electronics companies have recently launched recycling and reuse programs:
In October, Sony Electronics and the state of Minnesota began a five-year program to take back all Sony electronics and personal-computing products, from Walkmen to Vaios, sold in the state.
In November, IBM announced that, for a fee of $29.99 including shipping, consumers and small businesses can recycle any manufacturer's PC, including system units, monitors, printers and peripherals.
In December, Dell set up its DellExchange program, which offers consumers three options--trade-in, sale or donation--for disposing of older PCs and related products, regardless of the brand.
In February, the EIA unveiled a Web site that offers information on recycling and reuse of older electronics and urges consumers to oppose what it calls "misguided" legislation.
The manufacturers' programs have drawn the attention of the recycling community.
"That's huge," said Hui. "The fact that Sony and IBM are doing these kinds of things is only going to spur other manufacturers to follow suit."
Ironing out the details
In recent weeks, leading up to the EPR2 summit, individual PC companies and the EIA have been meeting with representatives from as many as 10 states to hash out where exactly the responsibility for costs and collection should fall as recycling programs get off the ground.
Evans described the talks as a "preliminary" stage en route to a national dialogue on recycling of electronics. "There are a lot of unanswered questions about how this issue is going to be solved," she said.
The electronics industry, Evans said, is looking for a market-based system with shared responsibility among all parties, including manufacturers, consumers, municipalities, retailers, trash haulers and recyclers.
Many variables still need to be worked out, according to both sides. "Cost is the biggest one," Evans said. "The states would have to provide something in the way of regulatory relief."
The states see the matter from a somewhat different perspective. "In broad terms, we're looking for industry to help take some responsibility and fund some costs for managing end-of-life electronics," said Brooke Nash, branch chief for municipal waste reduction programs in the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Still, the states are hoping to avoid the big-stick approach. "The idea is to negotiate something voluntary with business," Nash said.
One possible outcome of the discussions is a pilot project of some three years' duration, Evans said. "We're in the initial stages of trying to see how this can be done."
Evans declined to say which manufacturers are involved in the negotiations, but the EIA subgroup that focuses on end-of-life electronics includes IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, Sharp and Panasonic. Four states she singled out as "active" on this front are Minnesota, Florida, New Jersey and Connecticut.
If a nationwide model doesn't emerge from the Washington meetings, progress may continue on a more piecemeal basis. Sony is in discussions with eight states to expand its program and hopes to have at least five signed up by the end of the year, according to Mark Small, vice president of environmental affairs at Sony.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has held talks with Sharp, Panasonic, Thompson, Philips and the state of Florida and has agreed in principle to come up with a plan of action.
In the United States, 45 mercury-related and 21 electronics bills have been introduced at the state level, with bills in Oregon and Arkansas proposing fees on the purchase of PCs to pay for recycling, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers.
This month marks the first anniversary of a law in Massachusetts that bans CRT monitors from landfills, and other states are considering similar action.
"I think you'll see major things happening over the next six months. These things are starting to gel," said the EPA's Hui.