Consumer Electronics Show Panel Addresses E-Waste

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, January 13, 2003 (ENS) - For the first time this year, the world's largest electronics trade show took notice of the waste that arises when the thousands of shiny new devices render obsolete those now in homes and office. The Consumer Electronics Show, with 2,250 exhibitors and over 100,000 attendees, wound up Sunday in Las Vegas after dedicating January 11 as Green Saturday, an environmental awareness day with a panel on electronics recycling, and an environmental section on the exhibit floor.

Panelist Ted Smith, an attorney who serves as executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, was one of the first in the United States to address the problem of what to do with the millions of televisions, computers and other electronic devices when they reach the end of their useful lives.


Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
(All photos ENS except where noted)
"We know that there are from 300 million to 500 million computers out there in storage in people's garages, basements and attics," Smith told ENS. "We know that each of the monitors has from four to eight pounds of lead in the screen alone. If you do the math, we're talking about billions of pounds of lead. If that were allowed to get out into the environment, we would be poisoning the Earth for many generations to come. That's why it's really essential to address that right now rather than wait another generation."

More than 3.2 million tons of electronic waste is laid to rest in U.S. landfills each year, and nearly 250 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In 2001, only 11 percent of personal computers retired in the U.S. were recycled, the EPA says. Mobile phones will be discarded at a rate of 130 million per year by 2005, resulting in 65,000 tons of waste.

TVs, computers and cell phones contain lead as well as other potential toxics like chromium, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, nickel, zinc, and brominated flame retardants.

Representatives from Dell and Panasonic, two of the world's biggest computer manufacturers, were on the panel, explaining how each of their companies is addressing this issue. Problems of collection, dismantling, recovery of valuable materials, and disposal of the remaining waste are handled differently by each company, but in the end consumers will pay for these services.


David Thompson of Panasonic
David Thompson, general manager of Panasonic's Corporate Environment Department, said his company spends some $100 million annually on environmental redesign. The funds have been spent on projects such as developing solder that is free of lead, and overcoming the problems posed by substitutes that have a higher melting temperature and still must connect tiny, heat sensitive components.

He acknowledged that the company must recover those costs from consumers eventually, but believes that the $30 per product fee that California attempted to incorporate into legislation last year was far too high. "It could be five dollars, Thompson said. "I don't know if the retailers would be willing to collect it, but I think people would be willing to pay it."


Panasonic employee pitches flat panel TV screens to the crowd who will buy them to replace old fashioned cathode ray tube TVs.
People within Panasonic are more interested in environmental issues now than they were in the past, Thompson believes. "It's an issue that comes in waves," he said. "I think we're bulding upon another wave with all the attention that global warming has gotten over the recent years, the attention that electronics recycling has gotten in Europe and Japan, we're seeing another crescendo building of environmental interest in the U.S."

"Panasonic is looking to be prepared with products that people can use and not have to worry about when they throw away. So we would support the development of a recycling system for our products," Thompson said.

Panasonic is working with manufacturers Sony and Sharp, and e-scrap processors Envirocycle and Nxtcycle on staging collection events in communities that encourage people with obsolete electronics to take them from garage, basement or attic to a collection point.


Don Brown of Dell Computers
Don Brown, director of environmental affairs at Dell Computers, is also looking for market driven options to help the company address recycling at the end of its products' lives. Dell is also redesigning to reduce what Brown called "at risk materials" such as polyvinyl chloride which emits dioxins when incinerated at too low a temperature, and halogenated flame retardants that deplete the ozone layer.

Dell has reduced the size of its desktops 21 percent, so the amount of component materials and packaging have also been reduced.

Dell's takeback program is becoming more popular, said Brown, increasing in volume over the past three years from 118,000 products to 170,000 products taken back. Businesses, rather than home computer users, have participated most actively in the takeback program.

In a move to keep the costs of recycling down, Dell uses prison labor to dismantle or refurbish computers that it takes back. UNICOR, the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Prison Industries, Inc. "de-manufactures" and recycles electronic waste with inmates as laborers. As a self sustaining federal government corporation, UNICOR reinvests all income back into operations.


Computer junk before recycling (Photo courtesy Computer Reclamation)
It would appear to be a win-win situation. Equipment is kept out of the landfill, customers can buy refurbished low cost products, valuable materials are recovered, and prison inmates are employed protecting the environment.

But Smith says prison labor makes it difficult for civilian e-scrap businesses to succeed in the United States. "We also have to cut off prison labor because right now they're undercutting the legitimate recyclers, the recyclers that pay their employees a living wage and pay benefits and abide by the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] laws. The prisons don't do that, they don't have to do that."

Smith says representatives of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition have tried to get into the prisons to see the health and safety conditions in this electronics recycling program, but have been denied access. Smith says people who have been able to observe the inmate recycling workers told him that little or no protective equipment is used and conditions are "pretty horrible."

"If Dell and others are allowed to develop this low road that they're trying to go down," Smith warned, "then it's going to destroy the opportunities to develop the kind of system we need in this country."

sound system

Sound system displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show
Export of the electronic waste overseas also makes it tough for domestic recyclers to survive. "We need to have a system where the recycling industry can grow and thrive in the U.S., but in order to do that we have to cut off export," said Smith. "Right now we're still exporting a huge amount of old products to places like China and India where they're dealing with it in such a way that it's destroying peoples' health and environment."

On Saturday at the Consumer Electronics Show, the EPA launched its new campaign to encourage Americans to reuse or recycle their used electronics. The Plug-In To Recycling Campaign is a a partnership of Best Buy, AT&T Wireless, Sony, Panasonic, Dell, Sharp, Recycle America, Envirocycle, Inc. and Nxtcycle. It is intended to raise Americans’ awareness of the value of reusing and recycling electronics and to provide them with increased opportunities to do so across the country.

Marianne Lamont Horinko, EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said, “Reusing and recycling electronics is something Americans can do in their everyday lives to protect the environment, and this campaign will show them how.

“Many local governments, electronics manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, and non-profit organizations have established reuse and recycling programs for electronics,” Horinko said. “We want to get the word out about these opportunities and build momentum for even more reuse and recycling programs.”


An exhibit hall at the Consumer Electronics Show
But the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has a takeback campaign that its proponents say is much better than the EPA campaign. "This is an EPA backed industry PR stunt, but we need real solutions, said David Wood, organizing director of the Computer TakeBack Campaign. "There are already models that work. The European Union and, to a lesser extent, Japan, have adopted measures under which electronics manufacturers bear the financial responsibility of safely recycling their products."

Out on the convention floor, the buzz is digital. High Definition TV is one of the products that is predicted to light up the industry this year. For the first time the Academy Awards will be broadcast in HDTV.

New products introduced at the show include Toshiba's 57' liquid crystal on silicon projection TV, Zenith's award winning 42" model plasma display screen, and the new orbiTouch keyless keyboard, which won a Consumer Electronics Show Innovations Award.

Blues Brothers

Jim Belushi (left) and Dan Akroyd do an on-air radio interview for Sirius Satellite Radio
To drum up interest in its programming for satellite radio, Sirius featured performances by artists such as Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi, the Blues Brothers.

XM Satellite Radio and Delphi showcased their new XM SKYFi satellite radio that delivers up to 70 music channels and 30 channels of news, talk, sports and entertainment to a home or car for a $9.99 monthly subscription.

Microsoft Chaiman Bill Gates introduced a watch that will receive weather, sports and news like a radio, and also introduced, among other things, a Polaroid DVD player that supports playback of Windows Media video.

PalmSource offered the first Palm OS handheld that is integrated with Global Positioning System capabilities. A whole hall was filled with hot cars booming sounds from enormous speakers.

But now that the 2,250 booths have been taken down, and the new generation of products has been released into the marketplace, the older generations of products will be retired to their fate - the basement, the landfill, or the recycling bin.