COMMENTARY: E-Waste Watch: Why Not a National Law?

When the Democrats won a majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress, I remembered how my father told a story about another "citizen groundswell." About two days before English civilians rescued more than 330,000 Allied troops in Operation Dynamo, my 17-year-old father and a few buddies were abandoned by his officers south of Calais during the battle of Dunkirk. They blew up their strategic targets, and then raided an abandoned bakery where they sat down to snack on pastry and argue with some French soldiers about what to do next.

The French soldiers favored surrendering to the oncoming Germans, but my dad’s friends were volunteers who had only been in Europe for a few weeks. For them, internment wasn’t an option. Since my father had always loved trains and travel, he suggested they find one in nearby Boulogne and ride it south until they were well away from the oncoming German army.

The next morning near Cherbourg, my father and his friends "acquired" a small fishing boat with what they thought was enough gas to make it to Cornwall, where they could catch a train for London. That night, they rowed ashore on a beach near Penzance, where they were met by an Intelligence Officer alerted by Britain’s ever-watchful Home Guard. They rode back to London in style with their rucksacks and rifles and muddy boots stuffed into a Bentley owned by a well-dressed Englishman named Harry.

It was a beautiful spring morning in London, the beginning of Operation Dynamo and of my father’s interesting war career. Years later, when I asked him how he’d managed to improvise his escape from France, dad told me, "You can be pretty creative when you have a knife at your throat."

Economically and environmentally, culturally and collectively, we now have a knife at our throat. A big one. It’s time to get really creative. Thankfully many industries and many people already are.

These days, manufacturers are increasingly confronted with the problem of declining resources and increasing costs. Many people say there is only 40 years worth of petroleum left and leave it at that, concluding that escalating energy costs are a complete explanation for industrial financial hardships. Of course the real picture is much more complex.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports there is only enough economically recoverable lead left for 18 more years at current levels of manufacture; for tin their figure is 20 years; for copper, 25 years; for bauxite, 69.

The steel industry has already taken up this challenge, which in itself is reassuring, since steel is used to manufacture more consumer goods—cars, appliances, buildings—than all other metals combined. If current consumption doesn’t increase, there is still only about 64 years worth of iron ore left, so steel manufacturing is now beginning to shift from mines to recovery-based electric-arc steel mini-mills. Currently, 71 percent of all American steel is recycled from scrap including nearly all cars, 90 percent of all household appliances and 60 percent of all cans.

Remanufacturing is Caterpillar's fastest growing sector.

Some steel-based industries have learned this lesson exceptionally well. Last September, in BusinessWeek, Brian Hindo described a model being pioneered by Caterpillar Inc. In traditional throwaway or one-way manufacturing, 70 percent of costs result from the use of new raw materials. "Remanufacturing," however, disassembles and recycles the already manufactured components of old machines. Individual components including the most trivial nuts and bolts are recycled to be included in a second generation of "like new" products.

Unlike Caterpillar’s annual revenues of $36 billion, their new "remanufacturing" division is still a toddler, weighing in at only $1 billion in sales in 2005. But with 15 percent growth predicted annually for the next several years, what the company calls "reman" is Caterpillar’s fastest-growing sector, and no wonder. Remanufacturing a $3 part like a fuel injector case costs Caterpillar a mere 50 cents. The company reprocesses about one million of these every year.

According to one study, the average overhead saving for American manufacturers practicing "reman"—General Electric and Xerox among them—is about 70 percent, a remarkable figure and one that could significantly improve any company’s competitiveness even with increasing energy costs.

Architect William McDonough reminds us, "Pollution is a symbol of bad design." No wonder, then, that outside of America a second generation of "reman" is already taking hold. In Europe, IT firms are compelled by law to pay for the collection, disassembly and recycling of their toxic electronic waste. To save money, they have begun to change the designs of their devices, making them cheaper to disassemble and reuse.

Cellphone disassembly is a good example. The single minute it takes to disassemble a mobile phone seems insignificant until you multiply it by 100 million. Because it is now financially responsible for recycling all its old phones, Nokia has designed one that will actually disassemble itself. Components from these phones—such as the valuable titanium-coated capacitors—can be sorted by conveyor belt and reused again and again, creating enormous savings for a very minimal investment. Of course, this makes Swedish telecommunications manufacturer Nokia much more competitive than companies that do not practice remanufacturing or design-for-disassembly.

To date, self-interested manufacturers have prevented the U.S. from passing federal-level e-waste legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency actually held meetings among the stakeholders affected by such legislation in order to frame a fair law, but IT manufacturers stymied these efforts and the organization, the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), died unnoticed in 2004. It’s unfortunate, because NEPSI was a formal dialogue between electronics manufacturers, state and local government agencies, recyclers and nonprofit organizations, with the goal of a written agreement to increase the collection, reuse and recycling of used electronic products (including televisions, computers, monitors, laptops and peripherals), and including a sustainable financing system.

Ink-jet toner cartridges are often recycled.

The short-sighted greed of American IT manufacturers—their reluctance to embrace inevitable changes in their market—may now spell their financial ruin. Without legislation compelling them to change their ways, innovations like remanufacturing and design-for-disassembly have been pioneered by their foreign competitors who have a significant financial edge—70 percent or more—over American companies.

Maybe it’s time we helped out our American IT firms by encouraging Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to add a strong federal electronic waste law modeled on that of Europe to the current legislative agenda. Our corporate leaders seem to need a knife at their throat before they get truly creative. Let’s be generous and provide them with one. To do that, America’s citizens need to find their voices and launch another Operation Dynamo to rescue the continent from electronic waste.

Just such a bill was proposed in 2003: HR 1165, also known as the National Computer Recycling Act. The bill would have included a $10 fee on the sale of new computers to be used

for end-of-life recycling. Under the law, the EPA administrator would have been required to report on the status of computer recycling to Congress every four years. But the bill did not pass.

A great model is provided by California’s state law, the Electronic Waste Recycling Act. Since 2005, retailers can collect the so-called Electronic Waste Recycling Fee on consumer products covered by the act. The money goes to pay the cost of processing and recycling unwanted computers, printers and other gear that would otherwise end up in landfills. The law has led to a network of entrepreneurial computer recyclers in California.

The upside of laws like this is that America’s groundwater will not be poisoned by mountains of toxic cyber-trash.

GILES SLADE is the author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. (Harvard University Press) Currently, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Slade is writing Inhuman Touch, about how technology has increasingly isolated Americans and aided in the destruction of their social capital.

CONTACTS: Electronic Recycling in California