More than a dozen major electronics manufacturers have agreed to charge fees or pay front-end costs on their equipment in the United States to help fund recycling, which will include supporting related federal legislation.
The agreement, announced March 13 at an electronics recycling forum in Washington, is billed by participants as a major step forward in solving the problem of burgeoning waste from computers and other consumer electronics.
The companies, federal and state government representatives and environmental organizations in the talks said details such as the amount of the fees and the recycling system remain to be worked out.
``We feel this is a breakthrough,'' said Gary Davis, the facilitator for the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative and director of the University of Tennessee's Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies.
NEPSI thus far is focused on building an infrastructure to recycle electronic products, but the debate is touching on a question more central to the plastics industry - how materials are selected and how the electronic products are manufactured.
A NEPSI statement said it also wants to consider ``appropriate incentives to design products that facilitate source reduction, reuse and recycling, reduce toxicity, and increase recycled content.''
NEPSI has 16 industry members, including Hewlett-Packard Co., Sony Corp. and Panasonic. The group has been talking for about a year, and wants to introduce federal legislation by September.
``The progress we have made since January 2001 is just amazing,'' said Heather Bowman, director of environmental affairs for the Electronics Industries Alliance, a NEPSI member based in Arlington, Va. Bowman, Davis and others unveiled NEPSI's progress at the Electronics Products Recovery and Recycling Conference, held March 12-13 in Washington.
While much of the debate focuses on getting lead, cadmium and other hazardous metals out of landfills, environmental groups like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Californians Against Waste say they also have problems with plastic waste.
In particular, they cite the burning and disposal of PVC, the use of brominated flame retardant linked to health problems, and challenges in recycling the estimated 4 billion pounds of plastic in computers becoming obsolete between 1997 and 2004.
Bowman said NEPSI could affect the plastics industry through environmental-design issues. The group has had one workshop on that issue and plans another. The plastics industry also could be affected if bans are put in place on exporting electronics waste and the products have to be dealt with in the United States, she said.
Media attention has focused recently on electronic waste exports because of a report from the Basel Action Network outlining environmental and health problems in developing countries that result from recycling electronics sent from the United States.
NEPSI said in a statement drafted at its March 12 meeting that its financing system cannot be implemented immediately across the country. It said it will develop steps to boost the collection and recycling infrastructure and will outline steps to be taken in the interim.
The recycling of plastics is a particular problem, Davis said. An Environmental Protection Agency administrator told the forum that the agency wants to do more to boost markets for plastics recovered from electronics waste. Much of the push in the United States comes from local governments that are concerned about mounting volumes of electronic waste.
Mike Fisher, technology director with the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va., told the forum that collection of electronics will be complex, and he urged the EPA to do more to ``bring good science'' to the debate.