EBay Fights E-Waste

TO KEEP DISCARDED COMPUTERS and other electronic products out of the nation's landfills, San Jose, Calif.-based eBay Inc. and a group of computer, governmental and environmental organizations have launched an e-recycling campaign. Called the Rethink Initiative, the project seeks to promote e-recycling awareness and to facilitate the safe disposal of electronic devices.

The focal point of the campaign is an eBay-run Web site (www.ebay.com/rethink) that educates consumers about e-waste. Consumers can use the site to find an e-recycler located near them and to review a checklist of questions to consider when selecting a recycler. To prepare computers for recycling, the site provides a program that erases hard-drive data.

The Rethink Initiative also encourages consumers to resell their unwanted electronic devices or donate them to a charity. The program's Web site contains information on how to do both.

The initiative comes at a time when Americans are disposing of electronic devices in significant quantities. While unused electronic devices are often left in garages, closets or storage rooms, roughly 2 million tons of e-waste makes its way into landfills each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington. Electronic devices often contain toxic substances such as lead and mercury, and environmental groups argue that it is dangerous to place them in landfills. Some states, such as California and Maine, have banned cathode ray tubes from landfills.

Chaz Miller, state programs director for the Washington-based Environmental Industry Associations, says there is no evidence that toxic substances leach from e-waste when placed in landfills. Still, he applauds the Rethink Initiative, calling it a “creative attempt” to remove electronics from the waste stream. “It's a great idea,” he says. “Let's see how it works.”

Other members of the Rethink Initiative are Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif.; Apple, Cupertino, Calif.; Gateway, Irvine, Calif.; Hewlett-Packard Co. Palo Alto, Calif.; and IBM Corp., White Plains, N.Y. The EPA is a participant as well. A complete list of the members also is available on the project's Web site.

The Rethink Initiative launch is not the only e-recycling news to emerge in recent weeks. The EPA's Plug In to eCycling Program has announced the results of four pilot projects held last year to test the viability of collecting used electronics in retail settings. The EPA provided technical services for the pilots.

In one month-long test, 115,000 pounds of used electronics were collected for recycling by Staples stores throughout New England. Another month-long pilot in the Pacific Northwest captured 197,000 pounds of televisions at Good Guys electronic stores. In a series of day-long collection events in Minnesota and Wisconsin held last summer and fall, 357,500 pounds of electronics were collected, primarily at Best Buy and Target stores. In the fourth project, Office Depot and Hewlett-Packard operated a more-than-two-month program that gathered more than 10.5 million pounds of electronics at Office Depots nationwide.

“The programs were successful,” says Dave Deegan, EPA spokesman. The agency is evaluating the pilot results to help outline future projects, he says.

The EPA also recently awarded eight contracts to small businesses to provide e-recycling and disposal services for federal agencies and buildings throughout the nation. Traditionally, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has handled the disposition of used federal electronics, says Oliver Voss, a service center manager for the EPA's Office of Acquisition Management.

Agencies will still be able to use GSA to get rid of old equipment. However, unlike the GSA, the EPA's contracted firms will provide an audit trail to show where the equipment ends up, Voss says.