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E-waste & recycling update 1/11

Two independent, nonprofit organizations have released detailed reports on the problems created by e-waste, along with new policy and regulatory recommendations.

The New York-based public policy and advocacy organization, Demos ( Demos.org), has published "Tackling high-Tech Trash: The E-Waste Explosion & What We Can Do About It", in which the authors note that "Americans now own about 3 billion electronics products, up from a total of about 2 billion only three years ago."

With as many as 15 to 24 products per household and the rapid rate of product obsolescence, household e-waste has become the "fastest growing part of the U.S. municipal waste stream," according to the report. Unfortunately, only about 14 percent of e-waste is actually collected for recycling based on EPA estimates.

The report suggests a number of policy reforms and regulatory solutions, including the following "key priorities:"
o "Expanding existing take-back and recycling programs to cover a greater scope of products and making these programs easier and more convenient to use."

o "Expanding 'extended producer responsibility' for electronics products, requiring manufacturers to “internalize” the full life-cycle costs of their products."

o "Ending the export of hazardous e-waste for environmentally unsound and socially irresponsible materials recovery, processing, and disposal."

o "Requiring improvements in both hardware and software design that would ease reuse and recycling, reduce overall environmental health hazards associated with electronics (from manufacture through end-of-product-life), and ultimately extend the life of products."
Another new study issued in January 2011 by Greenpeace International(Greenpeace.org) is the third Green Electronics Survey subtitled "Getting Greener, But Not There Yet." The survey, which was timed for publication during the January Consumer Electronics Show, reviews e-waste policies and practices of 18 leading electronics companies whose products include desktop computers, notebooks, netbooks, computer monitors, mobile phones, smartphones, and televisions.

Compared to previous surveys, the 2011 Greenpeace survey found significant improvements. There were three "main findings:"
"Significant reductions in the use of hazardous chemicals. More products than ever before are PVC-free and BFR-free. (BFR stands for brominated flame retardant.) The use of phthalates, as well as beryllium and antimony and their associated compounds, are being eliminated in every product category. Although the previous survey showed that the use of RoHS exemptions could be drastically reduced, we have yet to see this progress in the industry."(RoHS stands for European Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment, which came into effect in 2006.)

"Exceeding energy efficiency standards. Almost all products meet or exceed the current Energy Star standards established by the U.S. EPA. Electronics companies seem to put much more effort in improving the energy efficiency of their products rather than assessing thoroughly (and reducing) the 'embedded energy' — that is, the energy spent during the production of each product."

"Product lifecycle responsibility must improve. Lifecycle management is still the weakest point of electronic products, with very little use of recycled plastic, a variety of take-back practices (generally improving) and little marketing efforts to prevent fast obsolescence of products."

"We did find that companies are becoming more transparent in the amount and type of product information they provide to customers, often listing product's chemical make-up and performance details."
Government actions

Last August, Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), called cleaning up e-waste a "top international priority." But so far the U.S. Congress has failed to act on any of the bills that deal with e-waste issues.

Some progress continues at the state level, however, with 24 states (Vermont is joining New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina as of 2011) having a variety of laws that restrict or ban electronic waste from landfills, according to the nonprofit Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a San Francisco-based group that monitors e-waste and promotes re-use and recycling.

Related links
Consumer Reports Electronics Re-use & Recycling center

Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics 10/10

Electronics Take-Back Coalition

EPA calls e-waste a top international priority 8/10
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