Disposing e-waste is not high up enterprises' priority lists because responsible management is not "financially attractive", said an industry watcher. Others say strong regulation and consumer demand for sustainable products needed.
According to David Moschella, global research director at CSC, a research and advisory firm, companies are not taking the e-waste issue seriously enough as most would hire a third-party to manage e-waste disposal for them.
Moreover, the issue of tackling rising volumes of obsolete, toxic-spilling electronic equipment possibly disposed illegally or unethically is "something vendors would rather not call attention to", he said in his e-mail.
Moschella said the e-waste problem will "absolutely" get worse in the short run because of the rising volumes of devices being built and disposed of. Unrecyclable parts, toxicity, time and costs incurred, and low public awareness all pose challenges to businesses' e-waste management, he added.
In the end, "being responsible is not financially attractive" for most companies as the costs of proper e-waste management often outweigh the benefits, he said.
Tom Dowdall, climate and energy campaigner at environment watchdog Greenpeace, disagreed and said in an e-mail that businesses would take e-waste seriously because reusing and recycling materials can reduce raw materials costs.
In addition, regulation such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive in the European Union, which stipulates collection and recycling targets of all electronic devices, make producers accountable for the costs of e-waste they produce, he noted.
Dowdall also pointed to Greenpeace's Toxic Tech campaign in 2005, which helped push companies to improve recycling services and change designs to make their products more reusable and recyclable. Lead and other heavy metals push recycling prices up too, which is why Greenpeace is campaigning for companies to phase out these materials from their products, he added.
Low public awareness
Besides grappling with financial implications, lack of public awareness is also hampering e-waste management efforts.
Francis Cheong, senior sustainability manager for Southeast Asia-Pacific at Nokia, argued that the main challenge with regard to e-waste is getting more people to recycle their devices. His observation stemmed from a 2008 internal consumer survey which found that 44 percent of old mobile phones are not being recycled.
He said there still is "a lot to be done" in terms of education and awareness. Nokia, for one, is working with external stakeholder such as business partners, schools and non-profit organizations to spread the mobile phone recycling message and participating in national green campaigns, he pointed out in his e-mail.
One example is how the Finnish phonemaker makes it convenient for customers to drop off their unwanted mobile phones and accessories at its Care Center, of which there are over 200 such facilities in Southeast Asia, Cheong pointed out.
He added that it also started an initiative with Singapore telco SingTel which allows customers to ask for recycling envelopes from shop outlets to drop off their unwanted used phones.
Electronics giant Panasonic commits to better e-waste management by assessing the environment impact of its product, from manufacturing to its end of life and being a "recycling-oriented manufacturer", said Low Beng Huat, general manager of Panasonic Asia-Pacific's regional planning and affairs group.
Asked if there are benefits to having proper e-waste management, he said having such processes help in protecting and conserving the environment, as well as reduce the company's dependence on virgin materials which helps, in turn, to lower the total costs of materials.
A shared responsibility
For a "successful and effective e-waste management system" to work though, Low said there must be defined responsibilities among key stakeholders. These include governments, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. There must also be infrastructure in place to carry out recycling activities, he added.
Greenpeace's Dowdall agreed, saying that a long-term solution needs to be a combination of "progressive action from companies" to produce sustainable products, strong regulations which makes companies accountable for products over the whole lifestyle, and growing consumer awareness and demand for sustainable products.