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Earth Day reckoning

Our computer recycling policies need to catch up to the rate at which we produce new electronic gizmos. Earth Day reckoning Our computer recycling policies need to catch up to the rate at which we produce new electronic gizmos.

The day after Earth Day seems like a good time to revisit a topic we’ve touched on before in the newsletter, and which seems to be generating more attention lately: the recycling of all of our electronic stuff. As we’re all at least subconsciously aware, this problem is growing by the ton, potentially introducing too much lead and mercury into landfills–which then leaches into our groundwater. Almost a year ago, the European Union published its fifth revision of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which calls to eliminate the use of toxic elements in computers by 2008 and get manufacturers to take on more of the responsibility and costs of recycling them.

The WEEE initiative stirred up opposition from industry groups, whose leaders pointed out in a letter to then-Vice President Gore that it’s neither right nor realistic for them to take on this burden alone. Consumer advocate groups such as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, on the other hand, advocated a “full responsibility” position at last week’s Electronics Product Recovery and Recycling (EPR2) conference in Virginia, arguing that recycling costs need to be incorporated into a product’s lifecycle. They also maintain that manufacturers need to provide incentives to consumers to recycle. Leaders in this area, such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, point out that American companies such as Apple and Dell follow strict European recycling standards, but resist them here.

I don’t want to be an apologist for industry, which has already weakened the WEEE standard from its original aims. But I do think the answers may lie somewhere in between. Yes, computer manufacturers should incorporate recycling into their production processes wherever possible–it only makes sense. But in the meantime, if I’m asked to pay a reasonable fee to recycle a used computer, I’m willing to do that, and I think a lot of other people are, too.

So in honor of Earth Day, I’d like to point out some noteworthy efforts that companies are taking to solve this problem. Last year, Sony launched a five-year program in Minnesota to subsidize the recycling of its products until the company figures out how to make the process cost-effective. Sony hopes to expand the program to other states as it goes along, and roll it out nationally by 2005. Dell has committed itself to moving toward a completely recyclable product line. In the meantime, its OptiPlex PC serves as a model–it’s easy to dismantle, and its materials are labeled. Xerox has established a “zero waste” goal, and has incorporated recycling into its production assembly line. Less impressive are programs by IBM and Best Buy, which take products back for a fee. But given how low this issue is on the public radar, we should welcome every effort to raise its profile. And the more we raise it, the more likely it is that we’ll see real results.

For more on this issue, see:

EU legislation

“Poison PCs”

Electronic Industries Alliance

Environment News Service report

EPA

Letter to Al Gore

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