Nationwide Deal on Electronic Waste in Trouble

Tsunami of trash forecast for near future

10 March 2004--A broad coalition attempting to write a national law to stem the rising tide of electronics waste in the United States has foundered. At its final scheduled meeting, last month in Portland, Ore., the group failed to reach agreement on the mechanism to finance take back and recycling. Even electronics manufacturers, who would be most directly affected by any financing requirements, could not agree among themselves.

All is not lost, claim the industry members of the coalition. On 26 February, they vowed to meet again and come up with a financing system that they could all live with. But environmentalist members of the defunct commission are skeptical that the group will come up with a solution, let alone one that is in the interest of consumers and the environment. If no agreement is reached, individual states will likely step in with their own laws, potentially leaving the country with a hodgepodge of recycling rules.

The situation, say environmental groups, is grave. According to a 10 February report released by the Computer TakeBack Campaign in Madison, Wisc., a coalition of environmental and recycling groups, the e-waste flood will hit full force by 2006. By then, some 160 000 computers and televisions, now stored in U.S. closets and garages, will enter the waste stream every day. Add those to the three-quarters of all computers ever sold in the United States that remain stockpiled, awaiting disposal. These devices are laden with toxic materials, posing a huge public health threat if buried in standard landfills; disposing of them safely could stick taxpayers with a bill as high as US $45 billion.

This tsunami of trash has long been expected. This is why, nearly three years ago, in June 2001, a coalition of some 45 representatives from industry; federal, state, and local government--and other stakeholders, including environmental organizations, recyclers, retailers, and academics--began working to develop a solution to the problem on a national level. The goal was to set up a mechanism and financing structure to ensure that old electronics products would be recycled or disposed of safely, rather than dumped. Such a system, the thought was, would be less unwieldy than a host of variant state and local regulations.

At its inception, the group, tagged the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), expected their effort to take about a year, Catherine Wilt, NEPSI coordinator and director of policy at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies, Knoxville, Tenn., told IEEE Spectrum. Wilt was hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., to organize the coalition to develop a voluntary system.

Initially, NEPSI was working toward a voluntary system, but, after a year and a half of discussion, the organization concluded that that approach would not work and that instead national legislation would be required, including a codified financing mechanism. The plan was to draft such legislation, which would, it was expected, be introduced in Congress. To avoid any conflict of interest, the EPA stepped back from the process when the work shifted toward plans for legislation.

But in the end, NEPSI’s industry members couldn’t come up with a way to pay for take back and recycling. Some were in favor of what is called an advance recovery fee or advance recycling fee (ARF), to be paid by every purchaser of a new computer or electronic product. Eventually, this method would transition to part of the cost being bundled into the list price of the product. Others wanted alternatives to be available without point-of-sale fees.

Now, according to a statement released 26 February, the industry representatives will draft and circulate among the other members of the coalition a plan for a hybrid financing system, which allows alternatives for individual manufacturers "without undermining the financial viability of the ARF system." For an ARF to work, enough would have to be collected to make the takeback system financially solid. Some manufacturers, however, would prefer not to charge consumers in such a direct way.

The minority of NEPSI members who represent environmental organizations also oppose ARFs as a financing mechanism. Instead they want electronics producers from the outset to internalize waste management as a cost of making these products, thereby encouraging them to design products for recyclability. Ted Smith, speaking for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in San Jose, Calif., a member of NEPSI, says: "Industry still hasn’t been able to come up with a financing policy that works."

Whether the current state of affairs is a failure or a success depends on the observer. The Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA), a coalition of manufacturers based in Arlington, Va., called the outcome of the February Portland meeting a success, issuing a press release entitled "Industry Reaches Agreement on National Electronics Recycling Program," and indicating that the organization "is optimistic that, in time, industry manufacturers will be able to reach consensus on the issue of financing." Separately, the Computer Takeback Campaign issued a release stating: "National E-waste Meeting in Portland Ends Without Final Agreement."

NEPSI coordinator Wilt told Spectrum that despite the lack of an agreement, she was encouraged by the outcome of the Portland meeting. "The majority of the stakeholders were pessimistic going into that meeting that we would come out with anything." she said. "We thought we would just call it quits. However, the industry stepped forward with ideas about how to move us forward."

Still, Wilt pointed out, there is no set timetable for further action. In her view, if industry comes to an agreement within a few months, "everyone will be able to pick up the ball and get together for one last shot at this. If industry takes a year or more, all bets are off."

"I have no idea if this will work," she said, "but I am more optimistic than I was going into the Portland meeting."

Wilt predicted that if NEPSI fails to reach agreement on national legislation in 2004, there will be a flurry of legislative activity at the state level in 2005.

For the full text of the Clean Computer Campaign’s report, see "Poison PCs and Toxic TVs,"athttp://www.svtc.org/cleancc/pubs/poisonpc2004.htm

For more information on NEPSI, seehttp://eerc.ra.utk.edu/clean/nepsi/

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