(Updated to include Basel Action Network comment
When I glanced out my home office window on Monday morning this week, I noticed an old television out by the curb along with my neighbor's garbage. Actually I've noticed this several times in the past few months, as people ditch older gadgets for new stuff. Every single time, this stuff has been picked up with the regular trash.
Here's the thing: I live in New Jersey, where it has been illegal to stick electronics out with household trash since Jan. 1, 2011. But I seem to be the only geek in my town who knows about this. The fact is: the recycling rate for consumer electronics and personal computing devices remains abysmally low, even though about half of all U.S. states have made it illegal to send this stuff to landfills.
The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is hoping to reset this mentality with the eCycling Leadership Initiative, which has pledged to collect 1 billion pounds of electronics (fondly known as electronic waste or e-waste) by 2016. That would be triple the amount collected industry-wide in 2010; it's also roughly equivalent to the amount of gadgets it would take to fill a 70,000-something-seat NFL stadium. The initiative will also be working with the Obama Administration's Taskforce on Electronics Stewardship, which is a joint effort of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration.
Said Walter Alcorn, the CEA's vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability:
"The billion-pound challenge is about both the quality and quantity of electronics recycling. But we won't stop at a billion pounds. The eCycling Leadership Initiative is an ongoing, permanent initiative that will follow the best practices and commitment of industry, including practices that prohibit the use of recyclers and downstream processors who dump end-of-life electronics in developing nations."
One of those best practices will involve supporting the emergence of certified, third-party recyclers. The industry association stopped short of endorsing any particular certification standard but said it will report on the "capacity and performance" of the various systems that are emerging. The two big efforts to watch here are the e-Stewards program that has the backing of the Basel Action Network and many, many well-known waste management companies (and many that are not so-wellknown) and the EPA's Responsible Recycling Practices program.
There are some early skeptics of this industry-led effort, including the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which issued a comment noting that most of the voluntary programs led by high-tech and consumer electronics vendors have produced "lackluster" results. A PR woman for the organization noted: "We want assurances from CEA that this effort will be an ongoing, permanent one, and not just a PR announcement aimed at discouraging states from passing takeback laws."
The following considerations should be part of any program focused on reducing e-waste, according to the coalition:
- A pledge not to export e-waste to developing countries
- Transparency of reporting and collection metrics (which CEA has said it will do)
- A nationwide focus, not just a program that supports the states with laws
- The application of environmental management systems that focus on accountability for toxic materials, worker safety, responsible reuse strategies, data security and export controls
Definitely a tall order. It remains to be seen if the private sector is up to the task or whether the federal government will finally need to take up an official e-waste policy.
Just after I pushed the publish button on the original version of this post, BAN published its own comment about the CEA initiative. Here's part of the statement:
"The new CEA initiative lists thousands of collection sites which do not appear to have necessary controls in place to ensure only responsible domestic recycling will take place. The net result of collecting more from the public without proper controls is a likely increase in exports of US toxic e-waste to developing countries."
I am sure there will be much back and forth on this issue on the days and months to come, especially as more of the state laws on the book take effect.