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Playing fair on electronics recycling

Who should pay for the cleanup when old electronics gear gets tossed on the junk heap? With legislators taking up the question, Electronic Industries Alliance exec Heather Bowman says the industry shouldn't get stuck paying for everything.

The Electronic Industries Alliance wants governments to play fair.

The trade group is worried that legislation aimed at the recycling of outmoded electronic devices, from desktop PCs to television sets to handheld gadgets, could put manufacturers and retailers at economic risk and could have consumers paying for the cleanup of goods they didn't buy.

Following the lead of governments overseas, lawmakers in the United States have started weighing in on obsolete electronics in recent months, at both the state and national levels. The EIA has rallied to the defense of its member companies, homing in especially on a pair of bills in California that proposed, among other things, a so-called front-end fee of up to $30 on the sale of every device.

Where activists and some in government say that the industry isn't doing enough to address the growing volumes of electronic waste, and decry the potential for environmental harm, the EIA points to strides that electronics manufacturers have taken in designing their products to be more environmentally friendly, setting up recycling options for corporations and consumers alike, and trying to keep costs under control.

In a conversation with CNET, Heather Bowman, the EIA's director of environmental policy, talked about how best to fund the cleanup of used electronics and who picks up the tab.

There are a number of bills around the country focused on electronics recycling, and California's has been getting the most attention. What changes do you see coming from this legislation for the electronics industry?
The legislation that has been introduced has given the industry a real understanding of the challenges that face local governments and state governments in dealing with electronics as a waste. That's just a new perspective that we haven't necessarily had to focus on in the past.

What are some of those challenges that local and state governments are facing?
Some are just the sheer size of (the potential returns of) these products and the cost of transportation and collection of these products in their programs. It's a part of the (product) life cycle that we haven't focused on in the past. A few years ago, through our environmental issues council, we put together a product ecology initiative where we made an effort to look at the three phases of the life cycle--designing products to lessen the environmental impact, energy conservation during the use of a product, and now end of life and what role we can play in increasing the recyclability and market for recycled materials.

Now there's also a bill in the U.S. Congress looking at electronics recycling. What is the industry's response to the Thompson bill (H.R. 5158, proposed by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.)?
We need a national solution, and this is one of the first steps toward that. We've been working on the types of national solutions with all the stakeholders involved in the (National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative) dialogue. We hope that through incorporating more and more attention on the national level to this issue that we'll be able to figure out what will work in the U.S.

We think that shared responsibility is the only way that (electronics recycling) is going to make sense in the United States.
So the idea of national attention is a good thing; but what about the bill itself?
There are certainly things in the bill that we can support, such as the study to look at viable markets for recycled goods. We agree that electronics recycling must be built on a national scale and that any financing systems have to apply fairly to all types of sales, including Internet and catalog and retail sales. So in that regard, there are parts of the bill that we certainly can support, but we do have concerns with the broad authority given to EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). We're always concerned about any fee that's imposed on our products, so we need to look carefully at the front-end financing that would be supported in this bill...And we need to make sure that it's being done in the most efficient way, so that it's cost-effective, fair to consumers and applies fairly to all manufacturers in all types of sales.

The bill also suggests doing a study on exports of electronic wastes. How much more do we need to know about these exports?
I think we need to know exactly what is happening I'm not sure the press and the reports that have been done are (describing) what's happening on a nationwide basis in China, or in Asia in general. And it would be good to know if the report done by SVTC and BAN (Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Basel Action Network) was just the exception to the rule or if a wider effort needs to be taken on exports. We think that wherever products are recycled, that recycling should be done in a very environmentally sound manner.

The Thompson bill has a fee of up to $10 that echoes some of the other bills in suggesting front-end fees. So do you think front-end fees are an idea whose time has come?
A national solution is an idea whose time has come. Congressman Thompson has suggested an advance fee. We found that while there's a significant number of households that said that advance recovery fees of $5 would not really impact their purchasing, (opposition) rose to 53 percent at $10 and 74 percent at $20. So we have concerns about the level of the fee and how that will affect consumer behavior.

I think that an end-of-life fee could be a feasible solution on a national level. It's fair to consumers and manufacturers. Consumers with an end-of-life fee solution would have a choice as to what works for them. And also, they would be paying for the recycling of that product that they're getting rid of, not someone else's historic waste...You're paying for the recycling of that product, and you're not imposing a fee on the purchase of a new product (that would subsidize handling of products from) a manufacturer that may even be out of business.

An advance fee or front-end fee is discriminatory for both manufacturers and retailers because consumers will be steered toward online sales as a way of avoiding the front-end fee. Sixty percent of those surveyed (by eBrain) said that they would buy electronics online to avoid paying the recycling fee. Having a front-end fee only applied at retail would discriminate against those retailers trying to sell in their brick-and-mortar stores.

Some of the recycling programs now--HP has one, IBM has one--have an end-of-life fee. What's the success rate with some of these programs?

The best way to fund the national system is to develop a framework that gives regions and different communities the flexibility to set up the system that works best for them.
I don't have any figures on that, but what I can say is, for certain areas--rural areas, for instance--that's a great program because UPS will come up to your door and pick it up, or you just have to take it to your local post office and drop it off. So for certain areas, I think that the mail-back program is a perfect example of the variety of options that could be provided at end of life and make it easier for the consumer to do the right thing.

Where does the responsibility lie as to who takes care of these old products? Does it lie with the manufacturers, with the consumers, with government?
We think that shared responsibility is the only way that this is going to make sense in the United States, and we think that not one (group) should take the full burden. And what we mean by that is that everybody has a role to play, and an example of the consumer's role is to be aware of what options are available to them.

What would be some of the other options?
Some of the other options that are available today are local household hazardous waste collection events, where they offer to take monitors and TVs back, some for a charge, some not for a charge. Other communities just allow people to put them on the curb and they'll pick them up through the waste management services they provide.

The NEPSI process is trying to find a voluntary, nationwide system for electronics recycling. What are we likely to see coming out of that?
As you know, EIA is involved, along with our member companies, in the NEPSI dialogue, and we think that the best way to fund the national system is to develop a framework that gives regions and different communities the flexibility to set up the system that works best for them. The one-size-fits-all approach probably won't work, but providing the general framework with flexibility will allow for those regional differences.

What market is there for the recycled materials?
There are several manufacturers that are incorporating recycled materials into new products. Panasonic is a good example, where they've worked with a glass manufacturer, Techniglass, and a recycler, Envirocycle, to recycle old glass into new glass. And they have just achieved 10 percent recycled glass in their new TV tubes...What we also need to look for are alternative uses. One of the reasons is that what is coming into the recycling stream can't be absorbed by the manufacturing here in the U.S.