by Jenny Donelan
From California's Electronic Waste Recycling Act to the European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (WEEE), the government mandates continue to mount: electronics manufacturers must take steps to ensure their products, at end of life, are collected and recycled. California's legislation calls for a waste-recycling fee at point of sale (end users pay this), and for distribution of payments to waste recycling and collection agencies. WEEE sets targets for collecting and recycling equipment, with the responsibility for making this happen lying mostly with the manufacturer.
"Responsibility" is a big part of the recycling equation. Who is responsible for which actions and can they be made accountable? Due to the complexity of today's supply chains, answers to these questions can be hard to find. When it comes to recycling electronics, getting from mandate to "mission accomplished" is a difficult path for nearly all the parties involved. But one thing is certain: the success or failure of any given recycling initiative resides mostly with consumers. Their buy-in is vital in order for a plan to thrive.
Where Used Electronics End Up
There's no doubt that measures are necessary. According to a recent report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm), approximately 235 million unused electronic devices had accumulated in storage in U.S. homes and offices as of 2007. Not all of these contain displays, but most do: this figure includes 43 million computer monitors, 2 million notebooks, and 99 million televisions.
Of those items that do make it out of the closet or the desk drawer and into the waste stream, very few are recycled. According to the same EPA report, between 2006 and 2007, out of 2.25 million tons of TVs, cell phones, and computer products at end of life, 18% were collected for recycling and 82% were disposed of primarily in landfills, where they are liable to leach hazardous chemicals into the ground and water supply. Although display manufacturers and others have been working hard of late to remove toxic materials from their products, the great majority of outdated or broken cell phones and other electronics residing in storage predate these efforts and so represent a considerable environmental hazard. And as electronic products continue to evolve in terms of features, stimulating consumers' desire to replace old models with new ones, the backlog of outdated products will only increase. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, U.S. consumers bought 2.9 million HD TVs for Super Bowl 2009 alone.
Recycling Along the Supply Chain
Passing legislation to handle the situation, however, and making sure that legislation is executed are two different matters. First, the consumer needs to be coerced. Electronics are not yet as easy to recycle as paper. Other than a guilty conscience, there is little to prevent an end user from simply dropping an old cell phone into the household trash. Some transfer stations do sort trash, but many do not; and the likelihood of any one consumer being tracked down for inappropriate disposal of goods is slim. Some corporate entities have been fined for improper disposal of light bulbs and other items, however. And trash haulers are sometimes fined for not properly separating recyclables from other waste.
Farther back in the supply chain, the manufacturers, for their part, are encouraged or required by current legislation to provide recycling programs, but they cannot generally force consumers to carry through. For the time being at least, much of this legislation lacks teeth. "It's a tangled area," says Kimberly Allen, principal of Pañña Consulting, adding that to further complicate matters, the EU has its own rules, whereas in the U.S., recycling legislation varies by state.
Companies such as Dell, HP, and Apple now have programs in which consumers can exchange, drop off, or ship off old units. Each of these manufacturers has a Web site dedicated to the ins and outs of recycling procedures, depending on where you live and what product you wish to recycle. Because the logistics of getting units from point A to point B might be beyond the scope of a given manufacturer, a number of third-party coalitions and businesses have sprung up that exist to provide these services. But here, as in much of the current recycling ecosystem, the waters are murky. Some, though not all, electronics end up in landfills in developing nations, where they may be taken apart by indigent labor under less than ideal conditions. The Basel Action Network (www.basel.org), a group dedicated to globally responsible recycling, now offers third-party audited certification of recyclers, including a directory where interested parties can find an authorized recycler.
That developing nations are more eager for used electronics than their economically better-off counterparts says something about the current value statement, or lack thereof, of electronics recycling. Says Allen: "The business case isn't super clear. There are challenges with how to collect products and dis-assemble them." Each component of a display or other electronic device needs to be separated and handled differently in order to be recycled. Consider a CRT TV, for example (and there are many such TVs still awaiting disposal). Some of these, according to a 2008 Popular Mechanics article (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/how_to/4277703.html), find new life as refurbished CRT TVs in markets where CRTs are still desirable. Otherwise, the glass picture tubes, which contain lead, can be melted down to be reconstructed into new CRTs or sent to lead smelters. Circuit boards in TVs are non-biodegradable, but can be recycled. Companies specializing in this work are able to remove about 99% of the precious metals from the circuitry on the boards by shredding them and extracting the metals. It is also possible to desolder specific components from the boards for further use. Plain circuit boards can be reused as building materials. And plastics and metals in the television casing can also be stripped out and used to create new products.
In the case of LCD TVs, the CCFLs used for backlighting contain mercury but can broken down (again by specialty companies) and the glass and metal reused for various purposes. The LCD glass cannot be used to make more LCD glass (it is not pure enough) but can be repurposed into a variety of building materials. Some experts have even suggested that the polyvinyl-alcohol (PVA) coating on the LCD glass can be used for various health products because PVAs are helpful in tissue-regrowth applications. Applications for recycling LEDs, which are increasingly used to backlight LCD TVs, are not numerous yet, but the general consensus is that because they contain no mercury, they will be easier to handle and repurpose.
So, there are plenty of useful components to be gleaned from old displays, but separating them from each other is yet another part of the puzzle. When components are soldered, glued together, etc., it can be difficult and time-consuming to pull them apart. A promising start in this area, according to Allen, are Design for Disassembly initiatives, in which electronics are designed from the beginning to be taken apart quickly and safely. Such design features might include low or no-lead solder, modular electronics boards, and pieces that snap together (or apart) without glue. In most cases, such items would be disassembled by recycling specialists rather than consumers, but the latter alternative is possible as well.
Consumer Caring is Key
The recycling situation as it now stands is a tough challenge not only for the environment but for consumers and manufacturers. Progress has to start somewhere, however, and there are bright spots. First, companies such as Staples have made some headway in developing recycling programs that actually win customer follow-through. The office-supply chain received the Environmental Leadership Award from the National Recycling Coalition this year for initiatives recognized as an industry model. By making it easy for customers to return any brand of ink cartridges at any store, and offering a financial incentive ($3 a cartridge) to do so, the chain has made strides and reports that it is on track to recycle 50 million cartridges in 2009.
As long as bottom-line responsibility for recycling is hard to pinpoint (should it belong to the manufacturer, the waste hauler, the consumer?), the legislation remains difficult to enforce, but in the meantime, public opinion seems to be doing some of the work, both in alerting end users to the importance of recycling and in pointing out which companies are forwarding the cause. The very fact that so many electronic devices are stockpiled in homes and offices indicates that many people are not comfortable just tossing them into a dumpster. "Watchdog" agencies such as Greenpeace also report the names of companies not involved in recycling or not living up to their recycling claims. Greenpeace publishes a monthly ranking of the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs, and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling, and climate change (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/electronics/how-the-companies-line-up). None of them get "perfect" scores, but as of September 2009, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson received the highest marks.
Time will tell whether such messages will reach beyond those who follow the news from political activists. Like other fundamental consumer behavior changes - consider how Americans began using fewer plastic shopping bags for the first time this year - electronics recycling will be most successful when end users' awareness and manufacturers' ability to make it easy for them to act on that awareness meet in the middle somewhere. •