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Learning curve: pilot programs and test events mark the first steps in creating an electronics recycling systems.

There is little dispute among all parties concerned (electronics recyclers, solid waste department officials and electronics manufacturers, among others) that America's basements, garages and corporate storage facilities hold an abundance of obsolete equipment.

And, as noted in last month's feature, an industry is emerging based on the reuse, parts resale and recycling of this obsolete electronic equipment. (See "The Big Leagues," Sept. 2003 Recycling Today, pg. 72.)

One of the most prominent barriers to further recycling is the collection and transportation of computers, fax machines, televisions, cell phones and other items accumulating in scattered places throughout North America.

Electronics recycling companies, county and city solid waste officials, electronics original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and retailers and recycling advocacy groups have all been in volved in setting up programs and one-time events to bring these items into the recycling loop.

DRAWING IT OUT. In a report released this year, the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER), Albany, N.Y., defines the electronics stream as it is encountered by its members as including a broad range of equipment. Computers and peripherals, fax machines, copying machines, office phone systems, televisions and VCRs, cordless phones and cell phones, camcorders and home video game systems are all included in the definition.

Recyclers have, naturally, targeted corporate and institutional generators of office equipment and computer systems ,and have successfully captured much of this material, arranging for bulk shipments from office buildings.

But the logistics of securing household electronics requires a different approach and introduces a thorny issue of who pays the freight, literally and figuratively.

Currently, the experimentation of these approaches is capturing just a small percentage of obsolete electronics. A U.S. EPA report cited by the IAER in its report concludes that just 9 percent of obsolete household electronics items are being recycled.

Data collected by the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC), Brattleboro, Vt., finds that sporadic events hosted by solid waste districts account for 54 percent of what is collected and recycled, followed by 40 percent harvested at permanent collection centers and just 6 percent accepted in curbside programs.

But the NERC report also found that even these programs were eliciting just a 3 percent household participation rate on average in the NERC study's sample group.

The IAER report also notes that, "Although in recent years OEMs and retailers have introduced a number of product take-back programs, they are still relatively new with little data available at this time."

Both IAER president Peter Muscanelli and consultant John Powers, who authored the IAER's report, believe the era of experimentation for residential collection of electronics is just beginning.

"Just because of shear volumes [of material], there will have to be solutions," says Powers. "The manufacturers are try ing things out that will work and can motivate consumers to trade in," he notes.

Says Muscanelli, "I feel we have a huge opportunity to capture this material, and we can do it economically as well as efficiently with the cooperation of all the stakeholders."

Such cooperation has been attempted, but has not necessarily followed a smooth course.

BEARING THE COST. Since early in the electronics recycling industry's lifespan, the issue of who should be responsible for paying for key parts of the recycling loop has been a source of debate.

Several dialog groups were formed to bring together different stakeholders (including OEMs, recyclers, solid waste officials, retailers and citizens groups seeking safe disposal), with the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) among the most prominent.

NEPSI's stated goal has been to "develop solutions to the issue of electronic products management."

The group conducted several dialog sessions and has produced several draft documents, but has not announced any consensus breakthroughs in terms of assigning financial responsibilities for collecting obsolete electronics for recycling.

The group did issue a press release in early 2002 announcing an agreement by NEPSI parties to "work toward the development of a front-end financed system that will strive to meet the goal of the NEPSI process," defined in part as including"aviable financing mechanism to maximize the collection, reuse and recycling of used electronics."

While the European Union and some other governments around the world are mandating or strongly encouraging the recycling of obsolete electronics, it appears market forces will dictate the amount of recycling and who pays for it in North America.

This leaves a formidable gap in the loop. "Because of the typical age, condition and mix of electronics collected from residential programs, the costs involved are higher and the recycling revenues achieved are lower than commercial electronics recycling," the IAER report states.

With higher freight costs, fewer premium products to resell, fewer in-demand components to harvest and a more sorted mix (and thus mote labor-intensive mix) of products for recyclers to work with, residential electronics recycling faces some challenges.

"Residential collection and product take-back programs are the key to han dling the disposition of the enormous volumes of consumers electronics in the future," the report notes. "The costs of collection and transportation need to be reduced and incentives must be developed to encourage consumers to recycle their end-of-life equipment."

Product take-back schemes in the U.S. do not seem likely anytime soon, as they are opposed almost uniformly by manufacturers and retailers alike. Unless the political winds shift dramatically, the U.S. seems unlikely to join the European Union in imposing sweeping product stewardship laws. However, bills have been introduced in several states.

But Powers and Muscanelli believe interested parties can continue to raise the amount collected.

"I think you're going to have multiple variations on collection," Muscanelli remarks. "What works in Toledo may not work in Schenectady. We have to have the ability to collect the material in a different way in different geographic regions. What's going to be the most efficient needs to be studied and analyzed, but I don't think we can pigeon-hole and dictate one way dial it has to be done."

And material to collect is not likely to dry up, Muscanelli notes, as younger Americans continue to rely on an even larger number of wired and wireless gadgets. "I'm a lot more attuned to technology than my father was, and my kids are more attuned than I am," he says. "The older generation has that notion of 'I paid $300 for it, so I'm going to keep it.' Younger folks want the latest and greatest technology on a fast track," he remarks, noting the plethora of cell phones, pagers and personal digital assistants that this demographic has the capacity to absorb.

If enough people resent that this material is heading to landfills, that can help drive more recycling. "Collectively, we're going to have to come up with more than one solution," says Powers.

GET THE FULL STORY

The complete 170-page International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER) "Electronics Recycling Industry Report" offers a variety of information,

Included are an overview of the size and scope of the industry as well as an overview of IAER activities and benefits followed by a 90-page directory of electronics recycling companies in the U.S. The directory is an alphabetical listing of companies offering contact information for each company

The report can be ordered using major credit cards through the Recyclng Today.com Online Store at www.RecyclingToday.com/store/.

It can also be ordered directly from the IAER at its Web site, www.iaer.org.

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via e-mail at btaylor@RecyclingToday.com.
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Title Annotation:Electronics Recycling Series
Comment:Learning curve: pilot programs and test events mark the first steps in creating an electronics recycling systems.(Electronics Recycling Series)
Author:Taylor, Brian
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:1240
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