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Organizations, Businesses Seek Best Solutions for Electronics Waste
by Trish Thiel

A pile of computers ready for recycling sit at electronic recyclers Nxtcycle in Phoenix, Arizona. Computers are part of the growing electronics waste issue.
—Photo Courtesy of Nxtcycle

The topic of electronics reuse and recycling comes up often as more computers, televisions, and videocassette recorders become obsolete, are replaced and disposed. Many organizations, governments, recyclers and original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are looking for the best way to handle the growing electronics wastes market.

Some groups have developed databases of information open to all to seek and share knowledge. Others are currently discussing and testing the best and most economical way to handle electronics wastes. This article looks at the following programs available for information and input: The National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, The National Recycling Coalition's Electronics Recycling Initiative, the Electronics Industry Alliance Consumer Education Initiative and Electronics Recycling Project Grants, The National Safety Council's Electronics Product Recovery and Recycling (EPR2) project, and The International Association of Electronics Recyclers certification process.


The National Electronics Products Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) was organized in April of 2001 for the development of a system, which includes a viable financing mechanism, to maximize the collection, reuse and recycling of used electronics, while considering appropriate incentives to design products that facilitate source reduction, reuse and recycling; reduce toxicity; and increase recycled content.

The initiative has 45 stakeholders representing electronics manufacturers, government agencies, solid waste businesses, recyclers, educational institutions, environmental groups and others.

The Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies at the University of Tennessee is coordinating the NEPSI dialogue. The center coordinated a similar dialogue for carpet recycling in the Midwest. NEPSI is being funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, as landfill and hazardous waste are big concerns for the EPA. Computer monitors' cathode ray tubes contain trace amounts of lead, phosphorus, cadmium and mercury. The glass screen contains lead-bearing particles. These materials are sealed as long as the monitors and glass are not broken. Often they do break if the pieces end up in a landfill.

Gary Davis, coordinator of NEPSI, said, "We are working to come up with a way to pay for recycling of electronics. We are trying to do this in a short amount time. We are trying to establish a system that will increase the level of collections, reuse and recycling of electronics. We want to make sure recycling gets paid for and that there are expanded collection opportunities. In product stewardship each participant has their own responsibility from the product manufacturer to the user to the collector of the used equipment. NEPSI is really covering the issue of financing the recycling system."

There have been two meetings and the third is scheduled for March 11 and 12. The last two meetings are scheduled for June and September. Mr. Davis said that while no new stakeholders can be added, industry observers are welcome and can participate in the break out meetings that discuss specific topics. At the last meeting held in January, a couple of electronics recyclers attended as observers and participated in some of the break out meetings.

The meetings have been scheduled in different areas of the country to try to find out more about what is happening in each region. Meetings were held in San Francisco, California and Tampa, Florida. The March meeting is in Washington, DC and the final two meetings are in St. Paul, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington. Mr. Davis added, "At the most recent meeting the group made important and significant progress in the discussions related to a financing system, particularly in understanding the various concerns amongst stake-holders related to front-end vs. end-of-life fees."

He said that NEPSI stakeholders defined important data necessary as a precursor to making a decision on the financing model and laid a foundation for moving forward toward consensus.

Clare Lindsay, EPA representative for the NEPSI process said, "the commitment for the participants to the process is stronger than ever. The meeting energized each stakeholder group to explore innovative solutions to the issues."

The NEPSI group has identified the need to collect data on existing collection and recycling programs provided by producers, retailers and local governments. To facilitate this data collection, a database has been created and is available on the Internet. The NEPSI stake-holders request that all parties that are currently providing services or will be starting new services provide the requested data about their programs online at www.nepsi.org/database. The information may be useful in designing or refining a new financing system for collection and recycling of consumer electronics.

Recyclers or other businesses involved in this issue can come to meetings as observers. For more information call Mr. Davis at 865-974-1835, Catherine Wilt at 865-974-1915 or visit www.nepsi.org. Meeting agendas will be available for those interested in attending as observers.

NRC's Electronics Recycling Initiative

The National Recycling Coalition's (NRC) Electronic Recycling Initiative has a goal to create a website that is the central clearinghouse for electronics recycling. The website (www.nrc-recycle.org/resources/electronics/index.htm) has been up for a year and a half and has become the most visited page on the NRC's site, according to Michael Alexander, NRC senior research analyst.

The initiative was funded with a grant from the EPA. The National Recycling Coalition is a stakeholder in NEPSI. The organization also is working with state recycling organizations to let them know that electronics day-workshops are available for meetings and conventions.

"We are always adding to the website and hope to have a large update of the site soon. We have a comprehensive database of electronics recyclers. Consumers can search by state or zipcode. Recyclers who are not on the list can visit the site or call us and we will get them added to the database,' said Mr. Alexander.

The website has information on national and state recycling programs, laws and legislation, recycling projects, collection programs, and international initiatives. Consumers can visit the site and look up information on purchasing environmentally preferable electronics and other guides.

The NRC also holds real-time moderated online chat forums with a panel of experts. Mr. Alexander said these usually last about 90 minutes. There are transcripts available of the past electronics forums and more are being planned for 2002. He said to check the site for more information on these forums.

The NRC is exploring other ideas for its webpage and is also willing to hear ideas from the public.

"Electronics is the top issue in recycling right now," said Mr. Alexander.

For more information on workshops, adding a business to the recycling database or other issues, visit the website, call Mr. Alexander at 802-254-3338 or e-mail michaela@nrc-recycler.org.

EIA's Consumer Education Initiative & Electronics Recycling Project Grants

The Electronics Industry Alliance has set out to educate consumers on electronics recycling with its Consumer Education Initiative (CEI). The EIA is the organization representing original equipment manufacturers in electronics.

Kerry Fennelly, director of communications for EIA, said, "We think much more can be done at the design phase of the electronics. We are having more and more discussion of on the reuse and recycling of electronics and using recycled content in the manufacturing of the equipment. At the end of the life cycle, we believe the best options are to recycle or reuse the electronics. We have joined together to educate consumers on this by creating a web-based tool."

The CSI web-based tool is a site of information about the options for old electronics and the recycling and reusing options available. Ms. Fennelly said, "Consumers can find the electronics recycling or donations sites that are closest to them. Some of those listed are charities, schools and churches that accept used computers for reuse. Some of them are companies that recycle the computers."

EIA said the site also supplies consumers with information as to why certain materials are used in computers, such as lead in the monitors that protect the users from x-rays.

The organization awarded three grants last year to help collect data on how well recycling programs work and the costs and other factors associated with this process. EIA is a stakeholder in NEPSI and will share this information, once collected, with NEPSI in the fall.

Ms. Fennelly said, "The electronics industry believes recycling and reuse is a shared responsibility between all stakeholders. There has been no concrete data collected on what works best in electronics recycling. We decided, along with 10 of our member manufacturers, to sponsor short-term grants to see if we can collect this data and see what works best and why. The Northeast Recycling Council, the State of Florida and EPA Region III received the grants."

Any electronics recyclers or charities that accept used electronics and are not listed on the EIA page, www.eiae.org, can visit the website or call Jason Linnell at 703-907-7500.

NSC's Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Project

The National Safety Council's Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Project (EPR2) has hosted conferences on electronics recycling in three previous years, 1998, 1999 and 2001. This year's March 5 conference marked the fourth such conference.

In 1997, the NSC realized that electronics waste was not being taken care of properly and organized the EPR2, said Candace Levitt. This program was designed at the time as an off-shoot of the EPA's Common Sense Initiative.

In 1997, a roundtable was established and discussion was held on properly managing electronics waste. A baseline report on this topic was completed at this time. The NSC is looking to update the report at some point in the near future, Ms. Levitt added.

The conference held earlier this month discussed electronics waste legislation in the United States and abroad.

"Many recyclers are involved in the same thing in other countries as here in the United States. The attendees discussed what to do with waste material, hazardous material, and salvageable material such as metals and plastics. Dealing with cathode ray tubes is another important topic," said Ms. Levitt.

IAER's Electronic Recyclers Certification Process

The International Association of Electronics Recyclers was formed a few years back to serve the interests of the electronics recycling industry, according to John Powers, IAER general manager. Organizational literature said that the IAER is the first and only trade association for the electronics recycling industry.

The IAER said the industry is a key element in the development of an effective and efficient infrastructure for managing the life cycle of electronics products. The organization is working to support and expand the promotion of high standards of environmental quality and regulatory compliance.

Mr. Powers said, "We surveyed the members about the top priorities to them. One was to establish standard practices to set the way for potential customers and agencies to look at a firm. For the recycling companies to achieve a standard of performance we've set the bar of electronics recycling business practices. We have developed an electronics recycling industry standard."

For about a year or so the IAER worked at developing a standards process.

"The scope follows some of the same things that the ISO 9001/14001 standards do. We wanted to include regulatory and environmental management systems as well as health and safety matters," said Mr. Powers. "Our 'Certified Electronics Recycler' will give companies recognition for high quality business practices and will help improve their management systems."

The certification process is open to IAER members. The process includes a prescreen questionnaire. From this questionnaire, it is determined if a company is ready for an onsite third-party audit. If a company is not ready, IAER offers a business consulting service to help a company get ready for an audit.

The audit looks at the company's management system, its general business, its operational capabilities and processes. The evaluation of adequacy is based on a determination of whether the requirements were addressed, implemented and are effective.

Mr. Powers said the certification is not permanent and companies must be re-inspected on a regular basis.

For more information on the IAER or its certification program visit www.iaer.org or call 914-635-2388 or 888-989-4237.

There are other initiatives not listed in this article. Many of the sites mentioned have links to these initiatives or have information on them.

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