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.