July 4, 2008

E-Waste: Whose Problem is It?

By DiRamio, Denise

Manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure the proper disposal of their products. The IT industry's recent commitment to environmental initiatives, with an economic focus on energy efficiency and a political focus on global warming, seems to have swept the mounting problem of electronic waste (e-waste) under the rug, or at least to someone else's backyard.

Every time the industry makes a product more efficient, a whole line of products becomes obsolete, which then becomes part of the 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste generated worldwide each year.

The United States generates more e-waste than any other nation, yet there is no federal legislation that specifically addresses the management and disposal of end-of-life electronic products. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than four billion pounds of e-waste was discarded in the United States in 2005, with roughly 87 percent dumped in landfills or incinerated, and only 12.5 percent was recycled.

E-waste, with the potential to pollute the environment and damage human health when it is processed, recycled or disposed of, is cause for serious concern. Electronic equipment contains hazardous materials that pose environmental risks when they leach toxins into the ground or air. The EPA reports that up to 70 percent of the heavy metal (lead, mercury, cadmium) contamination in landfills comes from electronic products.

Recycling would seem to provide a better option, but this is not necessarily the case. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimates that 80 percent of the e-waste collected for recycling in the United States is shipped abroad to countries like China, India and other developing nations where lower environmental standards and inexpensive labor make processing e-waste more profitable. The picture of "e-recycling" often depicts poor working conditions for unprotected workers, including children, who are dismantling and burning computer parts or using acids to recover precious metals and other valuable raw materials.

Exporting as a cheap form of recycling is producing an environmental disaster, according to a 2005 Greenpeace study. Greenpeace found toxic chemicals (tin, lead, copper, cadmium) in the soil and water in communities in China where e-waste is processed.

The European Union has adopted two directives regarding electronic products, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), which require electronics manufacturers to handle their own e-waste and eliminate certain hazardous materials in production. The WEEE directive mandates that manufacturers ensure that e-waste is properly treated by creating recycling centers at their own expense or pay to join a cooperative recycling center. Compliance with WEEE and RoHS is the responsibility of the company that puts the product on the market.

Electronics manufacturers in the United States face no federal regulations, and only a few states have enacted government regulations, thus companies have taken a wait-and-see approach. Producer take-back programs, however, where manufacturers collect and recycle their end-oflife products, are gaining traction. Some of the industry's biggest producers (e.g., Apple, HP, Sony, Toshiba, Dell, IBM and Lenovo) have launched take-back programs in the United States for their products. Many smaller companies have seen the advantages of creating similar programs. No company, large or small, wants its product to be seen in photos of landfills or atop the vast piles of e-waste in impoverished countries.

The goal of take-back programs is to encourage companies to take responsibility for their products from cradle to grave. The growing e-waste problem makes addressing the source and the design of electronic products imperative-eliminating hazardous substances-so when the products reach the end-of-life phase, they are less toxic and easier to recycle properly.

Technology is not Earth friendly yet, says Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Making electronics producers pay for the recycling of their products creates a financial incentive for them to stop using toxic materials and make electronic goods more recyclable.

Making electronics producers pay for the recycling of their products creates a financial incentive for them to stop using toxic materials.

Communications Haws' GreenTech column focuses on a variety of issues conceroing the green IT movement.

You can contact Associate Editor Denise DiRamio at [email protected]

Copyright Nelson Publishing Jun 2008

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