U.S. Feels the Effects of European Recycling Debate

Two proposed directives currently in the European Parliament's environment committee have sparked heated debates about electronics manufacturers' recycling responsibilities. Many believe that the fate of these directives — expected to be decided this spring — will affect electronics waste management worldwide.

The directives target all aspects of an electronic product's lifecycle, including design, assembly and disposal. If approved, they would require manufacturers in all 15 European Union (EU) member states to recycle up to 80 percent of electrical and electronics waste (WEEE) by 2006.

Many European policymakers are concerned that electronics waste is growing too quickly. In 1998, Europeans generated 6 million metric tons of WEEE — approximately 4 percent of the continent's waste stream. And, environmental activists predict that 750 million computers will become obsolete during the next five years. If disposed of in municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills, these products could leak as much as 1 billion pounds of lead and other heavy metals into Europe's soil and groundwater.

Prompted by such predictions, one EU “take-back” directive would require manufacturers by 2006 to take back and recycle 80 percent of lighting products and large-appliances; 75 percent of information technology and telecom equipment; and 60 percent of small household appliances, consumer equipment, tools and toys.

Additionally, because consumers often dispose of old products whose manufacturers no longer exist, the take-back directive would require current manufacturers to pay for “historic” waste recovery at no cost to consumers.

The second directive, sometimes called the “toxics” directive, would require companies to phase-out the use of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and brominated flame retardants (PBBB and PBDE) in new products by 2008. However, various fluorescent lamps and lab equipment, as well as cathode ray tubes (CRTs) for radiation protection, would be exempted from the toxics directive.

Concerned about the proposed toxics requirements, electronics manufacturers say that while manufacturers have reduced drastically the amount of mercury used in new electronics, avoiding lead-use in television/monitor CRTs is almost impossible. Additionally, the manufacturers contend that the total environmental impacts of new non-lead-based solders are not yet known.

A third proposed directive, which has not yet advanced to the European Parliament floor, would require manufacturers to ensure product conformity by adhering to specific design steps. The directive would require manufacturers to affix a conformity assessment symbol on products that adhere to the standards.

Although vehemently opposed to many of the three directives' provisions, electronics industry representatives say that they have resigned themselves to the inevitability of electronics take-back legislation. Instead of fighting the directives, manufacturers now are submitting proposals designed to make the directives' provisions more palatable to the industry.

One such proposal, supported by the European Environment Bureau, Brussels, Belgium, would combine the take-back and toxics directives.

In its current form, the take-back directive would allow individual countries to pass laws more stringent than those governing the EU as a whole. Combining the directives, the company says, would keep EU member states' laws in “harmony” with the EU's laws.

Another proposed compromise, devised by a sub-group of electronics companies — including Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif.; Electrolux, Stockholm, Sweden; IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y.; Sony Corp., Tokyo; Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif.; and SUN Microsystems Inc., Palo Alto — calls for an individual rather than a collective take-back program.

These large companies fear that under a collective system, they could end up paying as much for collection as their foreign counterparts that have not invested heavily in environmentally friendly design. Additionally, the large companies do not want to be responsible for historic WEEE.

Already, the effects of the take-back debate are being felt in the United States.

Last year, the San Jose, Calif.-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) publicly attacked the U.S. Trade representative for supporting industry efforts to oppose the directives. Then in December, SVTC posted its “environmental report cards” for 44 electronics companies, giving many U.S. companies poor marks.

Similar pressure from consumers and environmental groups has prompted New York-based Sony Corp. of America to fund the take-back of its own consumer products in Minnesota.

And although the company charges $29.99 to cover transportation to its Pennsylvania recycling partners, IBM is taking back old computer units from consumers.

Also feeling the momentum of the take-back movement, the Electronics Industry Alliance, Arlington, Va., has made the environment one of its top issues for 2001, according to Alliance spokesman Rob Nichols. Already, 400 Alliance members have agreed to post a statement on their websites and packaging, directing consumers to the Alliance's Consumer Education Initiative website. There, consumers can click on a particular state to find the electronics drop-off site closest to home.

Meanwhile, some U.S. legislators are looking to push the envelope on electronics recovery. Massachusetts already has banned CRTs from landfills and incinerators. Under the state's rule, CRTs destined for recycling are exempted from hazardous waste rules.

Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., is drafting rules that would add CRTs and other electronics to the “universal waste” rule, which reduces regulation of materials headed for recycling.

Worldwide, nine countries currently require electronics take-back, although the programs vary widely.

The Netherlands requires electronics manufacturers to pay the country's two major collection organizations to recover and recycle all electronics — including “orphan” WEEE. Denmark, on the other hand, requires local governments and consumers to pay for electronics collection.

By April 2001, Japan will mandate the recovery of appliances, televisions, air conditioners, computers and laptops.

Although these and other electronic initiatives are affecting the U.S. market, American recycling managers say that funding still is a stumbling block. Recyclers say that without help, they cannot afford to pick up electronics, which cost 15 cents per pound to 50 cents per pound to process.

An Electronics Industry Alliance source says that some of the Alliance's biggest members currently are discussing how to fund a voluntary national electronics take-back program. Whether the companies have reached any agreements still is unknown.