Recyclers confront a growing pile of e-waste

By Brian R. Hook

The public and private sectors are joining forces with a number of initiatives to reduce a growing pile of e-waste — unused or obsolete personal computers or consumer electronic products — that may pose environmental hazards when disposed of in the nation’s landfills.

One of the private firms is eBay Inc., based in San Jose, California. The online auctioneer launched what it calls the Rethink Initiative. It coordinates efforts to help consumers and businesses learn about the different ways to dispose of unwanted electronic products.

“The Rethink Initiative at this point is simply a small step forward,” said Patrick Jabal, director for computer and networking categories at eBay. “But the initial stakeholders who are involved and eBay’s community of 135 million registered users provide a nice foundation to build on.” He said that about $6.5 billion worth of electronics are traded on eBay in a year.

Many consumers and businesses are unsure about how to dispose of old equipment, according to Jabal. “The danger is that they throw away PCs and electronic products into the trash instead of channeling the products to new users or to responsible recyclers,” he said.

Just how big of a problem is this? According to research by AC Nielsen in a study commissioned by eBay and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 56 percent of American households have working electronic products they no longer use. 35 percent of those who have unused electronics do not know what to do with them. 33 percent said they plan to store the electronics indefinitely and only nine percent said that the plan to recycle the devices.

And the amount of e-waste will only increase. 400 million PCs will be upgraded in the next three years across the world, according to computer industry analyst Gartner. In the U.S., Gartner predicted that more than 133,000 PCs would be replaced on a daily basis during 2005.

 “Throwing away PCs and electronic products into the trash is a problem because the way we normally deal with solid waste is not appropriate for the chemicals that make up electronic products,” Jabal said. The electronics may contain hazardous materials, such as lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury that need to be handled in an environmentally responsible manner.

The Rethink Initiative promotes reuse or recycling of old electronics equipment. The centerpiece of the program is where end-users learn about the e-waste and find links to sell, donate or recycle their unused electronic products.

A number of companies are taking part in the Rethink Initiative led by eBay, including Intel Corp., Apple Computer Inc., Dell Inc., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., International Business Machines Corp., and Ingram Micro Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc.

The list of participants in the initiative also include environmental and government groups, including Earth 911, the National Cristina Foundation, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In the U.S., only a few states have established rules concerning e-waste. In contrast, the European Union is implementing rules concerning e-waste, impacting manufacturers, recyclers and end users. Manufacturers, for example, will be required to phase-out certain hazardous substances from their products and be required to take-back their products from users. Many U.S. firms are still trying to figure out how this will impact their international operations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, is pushing a volunteer initiative that it calls Recycling Electronics and Asset Disposition Services to promote e-waste recycling within the government. The EPA recently awarded eight government wide acquisition contracts for one year, with up to four one-year extensions, worth a combined potential of $9 million.

“We are going out there and trying to make the case for all federal agencies to use this program,” said Oliver Voss, manager in the EPA acquisition office. He said that while some federal agencies already get recyclers involved, most do not have a plan to recycle e-waste.

The EPA estimates that the federal government buys seven percent of the world’s computers. In fiscal year 2005 alone, the EPA expects federal agencies to spend almost $60 billion on information technology equipment, software, infrastructure and services. The EPA estimates that the government disposes of approximately 10,000 computers every week.

Under the contracts, the eight companies will evaluate the unwanted electronic products and its components and then refurbish and resell the products, using the proceeds to offset costs. Left over products will be recycled, donated or properly disposed of by the contractors.

One of the eight contracts from the EPA went to Liquidity Services Inc., based in Washington D.C. “It is a program that allows any federal agency to use the service,” said Bill Angrick, chairman and chief executive officer at LSI. After a federal agency issues a task order, it is then up to LSI to pick up the material and decide whether to resell or recycle the products.

For the products that still have useful life left, LSI will refurbish the electronic items and resell them through its website at The electronics without any useful life left will be broken down and LSI will extract the base materials inside, such as circuit card boards, copper wiring modules, switches, memory chips, batteries and capacitors, for recycling.

Angrick said that the federal agencies would pay a fee proscribed by the contract. LSI and the agencies will also share in the proceeds. “Because there is a share in savings element there is hopefully an incentive for people to embrace recycling without fear of incurring additional costs that they may not have in their budget,” he said.

Angrick said that the EPA is setting a good example for both the public and private sector. “They are not taking a passive approach to this,” Angrick said. “They are taking a proactive step. We think that it is a pretty comprehensive program that they set forth.”

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