Critics Trash E-Waste Efforts

As Americans buy digital TVs to meet the February 2009 deadline, millions of analog sets will hit the Dumpster.

The digital television transition has been called a lot of things, but at an April 30 hearing of the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee, it earned a new sobriquet: the largest planned government-mandated obsolescence in history.

That's a huge problem for the United States' already flagging recycling programs. As Americans buy digital TV sets in record numbers to meet the February 2009 deadline for the switch to digital signals, millions of analog sets will hit the Dumpster. Compounding the problem is that, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), less than 15 percent of all discarded electronics actually reach a recycling or re-use program.

According to Ted Smith, chairman of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, of those electronics that make it to a recycling unit, a good portion of that e-waste is shipped overseas to countries with few or no environmental controls.

"Most recyclers actually export the products they collect to developing countries with no worker safety or environmental protections," Smith told the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee. "There, the products are dismantled and separated using such primitive and toxic technologies that workers and communities are exposed to highly toxic chemicals."

Smith added, "Consumers have no way to know if the recycler at their city's Earth Day collection event is really going to recycle their old product, or load it in a container and ship it to China."

Manufacturer Responsibility

Smith urged Congress to mandate producer responsibility with manufacturers required to take back and recycle their products at the end of the product's life cycle. Smith also said Congress should ban the export of toxic e-waste.

Among television set makers, only Sony, Smith noted, has a voluntary takeback program. For such electronics companies as Dell and HP that do have takeback programs, Smith said, the volumes are not significant enough to solve the problem.

"We need the manufacturers to be responsible for taking back and recycling their products when we are done with them," Smith said. "We believe that if they have financial responsibility for their products at disposal time, then they will have an incentive to design them to be more recyclable."

Smith said while the recycling cost would ultimately be passed on to consumers, the cost would be internalized into the price of the product. That, he said, would reward the companies that come up with better designs to make products more recyclable. "Since their better-designed products will cost less to recycle, they can add a lower amount to their price to cover the recycling," Smith said.