Industries Agree on Computer Recycling

In response to government-mandated fees and takeback requirements to improve the environmental health impacts of used electronics disposal, members of the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) agreed in March to develop a nationwide front-end financing system for personal computers (PCs) and other electronics collection, re-use and recycling.

NEPSI includes 45 participants split evenly among the electronics industry, government, and a third group that includes environmentalists, recyclers and retailers. While the financing system is seen as a step in the right direction, environmentalists and even some NEPSI participants believe that several issues were not addressed, such as the lack of a definite timeframe for implementation and no decision on whether the system can provide product design incentives.

Additionally, NEPSI participants did not discuss how to make the system convenient for customers, or how the costs and responsibilities for collection, re-use, and recycling would be shared among producers, retailers, consumers and governments.

Several subcommittees and workgroups have formed since March to find solutions and develop recommendations. The issues being considered include cost, infrastructure, regulations, finance, products, legislation and an action plan.

According to David Wood, director of the Athens, Ga.-based GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN) and co-founder of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which advocates electronics producer responsibility laws, “The elements of the agreement, including prospects of a front-end financing system, are fairly significant given that the electronics industry has pretty steadfastly opposed these kinds of fees in the past.”

But, Wood adds, “If you look at the wording, it's an agreement to work toward the development of a system, or an agreement to make progress. There is not a lot of time left on what is a very substantial issue.”

Currently, some electronics manufacturers, such as Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co. and Best Buy, Eden Prairie, Minn., generally charge approximately $30 or less for consumers to dispose of used electronics. The proposed front-end finance system likely will factor the cost to recycle the product into the consumer purchase price.

According to David Casell, the Product Stewardship Institute's state and local coordinator, “end-of-life” programs provide a disincentive for consumers because they are charged to take the used product back to retailers and manufacturers. NEPSI currently is discussing two financing system options. “One is a visible fee on the product at the point of sale, and the other is a system where the producer pays at the point of import or distribution with the possibility for them to recover all or part of the fee as it is passed along to the consumer,” Casell says.

A nationwide recycling program will be much more effective than state-by-state initiatives, says Kerry Fennelly, environmental affairs director for the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA), Arlington, Va. But she adds, “There are a lot of challenges left. For instance, will [the system] work in the United States? What are consumers willing to do? How will they be impacted? And how can we make it fair and include everyone?”

“It will take focused attention over the next five months to develop a nationwide system,” Casell says. “We have a number of critical issues still to discuss and resolve, but … I believe that we'll be able to come to some agreement that meets the needs of each of the stakeholders.”

The group also will make recommendations on how to address the growing problem of exporting electronic waste to Asia.

NEPSI will hold three more meetings in the next six months and has agreed to provide a more detailed plan by September.