Some participants are losing faith in the national dialogue to develop a nationwide electronics waste recycling program and are telling states to look out for themselves.
The group of about 45 industry officials involved in the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative met June 13 in Seattle and concluded that the group should keep the process going despite dissenting votes from all three of the major sectors involved: environmentalists, government and industry.
Environmental organizations involved in the dialogue have said they doubt that the process will produce a viable and effective national solution to handle electronic waste, and are urging states to adopt their own legislation.
``The NEPSI process may have avoided a complete train wreck, but it remains in a tunnel with only a flicker of light for a serious resolution visible at the end,'' said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in San Jose, Calif.
Last month, Marianne Lamont Horinko, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, called on NEPSI participants to rally around one or two options. Even if progress is made, EPA could pull its funding for the project at the end of the year, she said.
EPA has provided $200,000-$250,000 in grants to the University of Tennessee's Center for Clean Products & Clean Technologies to facilitate the NEPSI dialogue.
``It's a very complex issue,'' said David Isaacs, director of global policy for Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto, Calif. ``There are some clear areas of disagreement. We're still kind of slogging through trying to work those out.''
One of the most contentious topics is funding. Local governments and environmental groups want to charge consumers a front-end environmental fee for each unit they purchase, to pay for the collection and recycling of scrap electronics.
But front-end fees are not fair, efficient or environmentally sound, Isaacs said. Hewlett-Packard has laid out a plan, referred to as the HP Proposal, whereby manufacturers internally bear the costs of recycling their end-of-life equipment. Local governments would take the leading role in local collection and consolidation of scrap electronics. Manufacturers then would pay to pick up truckload quantities of their products at the consolidation points.
``No other product category or industry or company has stepped up in that way and assumed responsibility for their products in that way,'' Isaacs said. ``We're certainly ready to roll up our sleeves, as we have in the past, and continue to work on this.''
Hewlett-Packard's proposal resembles the European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which calls for manufacturer responsibility at least from the point of consolidation, Isaacs said. The European directive lets each member state determine how to handle collection, he said.
``We're actually, in large part, saying the same thing,'' Isaacs said. ``Same framework, basically.''
But even if the group agrees on a solution, there are doubts about whether any NEPSI legislation will pass the current Congress, said David Wood, program director of the Athens, Ga.-based GrassRoots Recycling Network.
``At this juncture, there is far more likelihood of success taking place at the state level than at the national level,'' Wood said. ``It is essential, therefore, that states forge ahead, assume the driver's seat and proceed with all due urgency in passing producer responsibility legislation for electronic waste.''
Legislators in 26 states have proposed at least 52 bills calling for some form of electronic waste legislation that bans electronics from landfills or requires manufacturers to take responsibility for their products, said Michele Raymond of Raymond Communications Inc., which publishes the State Recycling Laws Update newsletter. But a patchwork of state take-back laws could be disastrous, Raymond said.
``Many of these bills have not been thought out very well,'' she said. ``There is a presumption that there are only a few computer manufacturers out there, and that there will magically be U.S. markets for all of the material generated.''
States that require reporting and take-back will have to find all of the manufacturers. Small, local computer firms assemble and sell a large percentage of computers, and a majority of the parts are made in Asia, which would make enforcing take-back laws nearly impossible, Raymond said.