Europe Cracks Down On E-Waste

New policy stirs alarm among corporate executives, hope among environmentalists, and creativity among engineers

8 min read

Electronic waste in Europe is growing sofast that it will double between 1998 and 2010, according to European Union documents. And in 1998 it already measured in the region of six million metric tons. The pace of its accumulation worries public officials because e-waste contains lead and other chemicals that can, to quote electronics recycling entrepreneur Simon Greer, literally "send you bonkers" if they leak into water supplies. As consumers and businesses dump their old computers, regulators are scrambling to steer machines and their parts out of landfills.

While this spreading scrap threatens towns around the world, the European Union is preparing a broad response. Or trying to. It will soon issue a Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, requiring manufacturers to take machines back for free and to recycle 65 percent of their average weight. The European Parliament passed the directive--abbreviated as WEEE and pronounced like the scream of a child riding a roller coaster--on 10 April, one step in the process. Member states of the union will soon consider it; they could ratify the directive, which is akin to law, as early as this fall. WEEE is set to take full effect by 2008.

The directive's recycling targets, says Melissa Shinn, a policy advocate for an environmentalist association called the European Environmental Bureau (Brussels, Belgium), will "really make a producer think about what happens to a product at the end of its life." To avoid penalties, Shinn expects manufacturers to apply this thinking to more efficient design.

Probably design improvements will be explicitly addressed in a sister piece of legislation that Shinn says is now in the works. But if the WEEE rules encourage manufacturers to make machines that are cheaper to disassemble and easier to break down, they will probably stoke design improvements as well. Key logistical questions--like who brings what to where for recycling--also remain undetermined. Whatever its final contours, however, the directive may bring business opportunities to engineers who can glean marketable commodities from a computer's plastics and metals.

Because few such engineers are in plain sight, manufacturers are fighting to make the WEEE as gentle as possible. Townsend Feehan, a spokeswoman for the European Information, Communications and Consumer Electronics Technology Industry Association (EICTA, also in Brussels), warns that manufacturers may "sack" factory workers if WEEE imposes costs that manufacturers cannot charge off easily, such as mandatory contributions to a recycling fund or bills for recycling computers made by defunct companies. The law's eventual structure could promote better design, force more attention to logistics, or simply make computers more expensive. In that light, environmentalists are watching negotiations warily, and engineers who have struggled to promote their recycling inventions are champing at the bit.

Two years ago Derek Fray, head of the materials science and metallurgy department at the University of Cambridge (UK), tried unsuccessfully to market a method for removing lead and precious metals from printed-circuit boards. After earning a United Kingdom patent in February, the soft-spoken Fray claims to be "inundated with inquiries" from the likes of Motorola Inc. (Schaumburg, Ill.) and Nokia Corp. (Espoo, Finland). And none too soon. "There is no longer an industrial base" for metallurgy in most of Great Britain, says Fray, "although the WEEE initiative will open up lots of opportunities."

What is WEEE?

In March, the Council of the European Union, which consists of state ministers from each country in the union, disputed the popularly elected European Parliament on numerous questions about how companies will collect and recycle their goods. Among the issues discussed were whether households must separate their e-waste, whether smaller businesses should be exempt, and whether manufacturers must cover their own costs or pay into a recycling fund for the entire industry. This last question is a pivotal one.

Most manufacturers hate the idea of so-called collective responsibility, fearing that lazy companies will freeload on the research done by industrious companies. "You ought to reap rewards if you can design in a way that promotes recycling," argues trade association spokesperson Feehan. The draft law parliament approved in April favors individual responsibility for most hardware, but leaves the industry collectively responsible for recycling orphaned machines.

In response, manufacturers in Europe are likely to charge more for products. In Japan, laws require consumers to pay extra fees when they dispose of their appliances [see "Japan: Serious Business,"]. In the United States, IBM Corp. (Armonk, N.Y.) and Hewlett-Packard Co. (Palo Alto, Calif.) charge between US $13 and $30 to take back anybody's machines. [See "Recycling in the United States: The Promised Landfill"]

To avoid provoking manufacturers into conflict, the European Union will have to tread carefully. While most big U.S. firms take back machines in some European countries, they are philosophically committed to doing so on their own terms. On 19 March, a U.S. consortium called the National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative trumpeted a commitment from 12 manufacturers (plus Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and the Electronic Industries Alliance) to a future regime in which some purchase-related charge would fund recycling efforts. But this commitment is light on specifics.

Whatever its mechanics, the legislation will require investment in new processes. Entrepreneurs would do well to solve e-recycling's biggest puzzle: how to shred computers into safe, marketable commodities.

Today, e-recycling involves more grunt work than chemistry. (It also often refers to dismantling and reselling rather than reusing old materials in new machines.) Dozens of firms across Europe dismantle machines by hand, sell used machines and parts, or shred machines for scrap or eventual landfill [see "How Recycling Works"]. "Recycling electronics is relatively straightforward," says Mark Wolle, director of Precious Metals Industries Ltd. (Neath, Wales). "It's just a question of weighing up costs and benefits and deciding whether you want to recycle."

Under WEEE, manufacturers will have to recycle some 65 percent of their components. Companies might chafe less at the idea of funding curbside collection if they believed they could make money recycling parts they currently throw away.

Offering a gloomy assessment is Harry Mackie, recycling manager at Datec Technologies Ltd. (Irvine, Scotland). Recovered materials, he explains, may retain bits of lead, paper, or alien plastic that make them less reliable than virgin stock.

Many firms resell what they can to schools and late adopters. But when these customers outgrow their appetite for 486 PCs and bulky monitors, companies will need a way of preparing old components for new uses.

The lead problem

Lead, contained in the solder on printed-circuit boards and in cathode-ray tubes, becomes a problem in shredding. Large firms like Royal Philips Electronics (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) and STMicroelectronics (Geneva, Switzerland) are starting to build circuit boards with other materials. But even as lead-free circuit boards enter the market, leaded circuit boards will be a hefty part of the waste stream for years to come.

Some smaller entrepreneurs, however, are offering ways to harmlessly recycle lead-containing printed-circuit boards and monitors. Cambridge University's Fray is selling a chemical process that removes solder from printed-circuit boards and enables a worker to collect microprocessors off the boards for resale. As Fray describes it, his team developed a leachant that dissolves lead/tin solders without damaging a board's precious metals. An electric current through the solution "plates out" the lead and tin off the circuit board while the precious metals are unaffected. All elements--circuits, copper, lead, and tin--emerge pure enough to stockpile and sell to smelters or manufacturers.

Lead also lurks in cathode-ray tubes, where it protects against radiation, making it risky to resell shredded glass from monitors. Recycling entrepreneur Greer, who is co-head of a Manchester start-up called NuLife Glass Ltd. (Wilmslow, UK), aims to get TV and computer makers to pay him for separating lead from glass in a furnace he has devised. "Some manufacturers have said to me they will never use [glass recycled from the front of a cathode-ray tube] because the slightest impurities could ruin the lot," claims Greer. He says NuLife's furnaces will exploit chemical and physical properties of lead and glass to separate them cleanly. He and his partner aim to "start corralling TVs and monitors around the world."

Plastics, son, plastics

Computers combine between three and 10 plastics to create a desired strength, weight, appearance, and lubricity. But when these plastics mix in shredding, they produce what one engineer calls "gunk"--a useless amalgam.

Moreover, even a paper label bearing a corporate logo can make recycled plastic weaker than virgin stock. (Real poisons may lie in flame-retardants, which the European Union is pursuing under separate legislation.) The directive's recovery target, which could end up as high as 80 percent, will require rapid improvements in the technology.

Today, sorting plastics is time-consuming and costly. Because the four plastics that dominate computer casings--acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), high-impact polystyrene, polycarbonate, and an ABS/polycarbonate blend--are hard to distinguish by sight, many engineers are trying to popularize more ingenious means of separating them. Mike Biddle, chief executive officer of recycling-engineering firm MBA Polymers Inc. (Richmond, Calif.), says small recyclers often guess a piece's composition from its use, how it smells, or what kind of flame it gives off when burned. But these unreliable and dangerous processes can in no way approach the WEEE's recovery targets.

Biddle's company separates shredded plastic in three stages. It uses magnets and separators to get rid of metals, then air to separate fiber, paper, and foam--"the same technology used for generations to separate wheat from chaff," says Biddle. The process yields mixed plastic flakes, which proprietary tools, including optical sorters that distinguish colors, separate by toying with their physical and mechanical properties. Today MBA has a demonstration facility, in Richmond, Calif. It suffered a business setback after a subcontractor's error caused one death in a fire in 2000. But Biddle boasts of an investment from contract manufacturer Flextronics Corp. (Singapore) and promises to start serving European companies soon.

Manufacturers are increasingly designing machines from other materials. The Sony Vaio notebook is encased in recyclable magnesium alloys; the Apple PowerBook G4 case is titanium. In another venture, Charles L. Beatty, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Florida (Gainesville), is developing a recyclable plastic for cell phones with funding from Motorola Inc. (Schaumburg, Ill.).

"Probably the biggest issue in design is how quickly you can clean base plastics," says Datec Technologies' Mackie. "The monitor has flame retardants [that] nobody will identify." Also concerned is Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (San Jose, Calif.), who insists that brominated flame retardants pose a "very significant" threat to public health. With such mysteries lingering, solutions like Biddle's look more like targeted medicines than silver bullets.

WEEE's economic upshot is murky. Companion legislation on removing hazardous substances may spur higher prices, especially from U.S. firms whose home governments have laxly regulated hazardous e-waste disposal [see again, "Recycling in the United States"]. That may discourage sales, which would reduce R&D budgets.

There is also the question of hidden costs. A spokesperson for a large U.S. company, who asked for anonymity, points out that "free" take-back will not be free, since manufacturers will pass along their costs in higher prices or taxes. If this pragmatic attitude prevails in Europe's business lobby, companies may invest the minimum required to meet recycling targets.

Consumers can influence the WEEE's outcome, too. They may race to buy new machines before recycling surcharges hit, the way consumers did in Japan. Or a critical number of them, especially in eco-conscious societies like Denmark's, may opt for innovative recycling, which could leave individual companies in charge of their own recycling plans. The EICTA's Feehan says each company she represents "is interested in green marketing." But each will presumably base technology investment on how popular they perceive the WEEE to be.

Changes in design and physics may also overwhelm today's methods by the time WEEE laws become commonplace. Before too long, says Joe Jaswinski, senior vice president of operations of DMC Recycling Inc. (Newfields, N.H.), shredders and chemical mixes will advance to a point where recyclers can mine PCs for the sand and oil in them. And Chris T. Hendrickson, head of the civil and environmental engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh), notes that scrap heaps aren't necessarily the last stop for minerals. "It's quite conceivable that 100 years from now the landfills are going to be mined," he says.

The WEEE directive may order manufacturers to break down their machines, but nobody knows how those machines will come back together.

Tekla S. Perry, Editor

About the Author

ALEC APPELBAUM writes about environmental and political issues. A contributing editor to EurasiaNet, he lives in New York City.

To Probe Further

Readers can find the text of the WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive and plenty more about how the European Union works at http://www.europa.eu.int.

For an overview of efforts in the rest of Europe, examine the Eureka Umbrella's Comprehensive Approach for the Recycling and Eco-Efficiency of Electronics. For a good entry point, check out http://www.ihrt.tuwien.ac.at/sat/base/cv2000/index.htmlt.

As for the U.S. situation, scan the National Electronic Products Stewardship Initiative at http://www.nepsi.org or (for a more activist guide) the Grass Roots Recycling Network at http://www.grrn.org. The Basel Action Network/Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's alarming report on the export of hazardous waste appears at http://www.ban.org and http://www.svtc.org.

For more information on appliance recycling laws, in Japan, check out the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry at http://www.meti.go.jp/english/special/EnvironmentalProtection/e_main.html.

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