E-waste recycling faces several challenges, critics say

The U.S. faces several e-waste recycling challenges, experts tell Congress.

Many discarded electronic devices in the U.S. wind up being dismantled overseas using crude and unsafe methods, partly because of a lack of markets for some electronic materials, e-waste experts told a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Despite major recycling efforts by several electronics manufacturers, some recycling programs send electronics waste to developing nations in Asia and Africa, where devices are dismantled using hammers and plastics are burned to separate out the metal components, said Ted Smith, chairman of the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, a group that pushes for responsible recycling.

"When they burn the plastics, it's creating dioxin clouds, which are affecting the children in the communities throughout the developing world," Smith told the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee. "This is one of the biggest problems we're facing right now, and I think the U.S. is primarily responsible."

Less than 20 percent of discarded electronics are currently recycled in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the concerns facing legitimate recyclers is the cost of collecting and transporting discarded electronics, added Eric Harris, director of government and international affairs for the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group representing recyclers.

Some electronic equipment, including CRTs (cathode ray tubes) found in some TV sets and computer monitors, costs more to recycle than recyclers can recover, Harris added. There's also limited interest in plastic from electronic devices because of the processing costs, he said.

Lawmakers should look into investment incentives for recyclers, Harris recommended. They could also encourage electronics manufacturers to design their products with "an eye toward recycling," he said. Many electronic products still contain components or materials that make them difficult to refurbish or recycle, he said.

Smith and Representative Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican, pointed to a shrinking life span of electronic devices as part of the problem. U.S. consumers will buy an estimated 32 million new TV sets and 22 million new computers this year, Smith said.

Electronics manufacturers design products to be thrown away and not repaired or upgraded, Bartlett added. "What we're dealing with here is really a self-inflicted wound, a self-inflicted problem," he said. "Much of this equipment is made with planned obsolescence."

Consumers should consider whether they need new electronic equipment as often as they buy it, he added. "What is more important -- to spend more time with these silly [electronic] games, or to use less energy so there will be more available for our kids and grandkids?" he said.

But representatives of Sony and Hewlett-Packard said their companies have put comprehensive recycling programs in place. Hewlett-Packard has redesigned many products to eliminate materials that cannot be recycled, said Renee St. Denis, HP's director of product take-back and recycling in the Americas.

Asked if consumers or manufacturers should pay fees for recycling, St. Denis said it makes more sense for manufacturers to pay the fees. Thirteen states have mandated recycling programs and most require manufacturers to pay fees, but California's law requires consumers to pay fees.

"The more we're involved in recycling, the more we're motivated to find alternatives to some of the materials of concern that are in the products," St. Denis said.

But Representative Laura Richardson, a California Democrat, noted that only about 15 percent of HP electronic products were recycled in 2007. "It sounds like maybe you could use a little help," she told St. Denis. "Fifteen percent isn't satisfactory."

Michael Williams, Sony's executive vice president and general counsel, said he expects recycling programs to grow. Sony launched a nationwide electronics recycling program in September, and it now has 138 recycling drop-off centers across the U.S. where customers can drop off any Sony products free, he said. Sony's goal is to eventually have a drop-off center within 20 miles of 95 percent of the U.S. population and to collect a pound of e-waste for every pound of electronics the company sells, he said.

A recycling program is not only good for the environment, but it also creates brand loyalty and provides the company with materials it can use in new products, Williams said.

"As I explained to my 82-year-old mother, if we make it, we take it," Williams said.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?