Do a quick inventory. How many old PCs, cell phones, TVs, game consoles, and other discarded electronic gadgets are gathering dust in your closets, basement, or garage? Now multiply that by 100 million households -- and that's just in the United States.
Discarded electronics are now the fastest-growing waste stream in the industrialized world, according to the Basel Action Network (BAN), a watchdog organization based in Seattle. As much as 80 percent of the world's high-tech trash ends up in Asia -- and 90 percent of that flows to China. There Chinese laborers dismantle it by hand, exposing themselves to the toxic contents, including lead and mercury, contaminating the soil, and making groundwater undrinkable.
But a worldwide wave of legislation may not only stem the tide of e-waste but ultimately force manufacturers to change the way electronics are designed. The European Union was the first to adopt these new laws, and China is now following suit. One E.U. law, a directive called the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), limits the amount of toxic materials that manufacturers can use in a broad range of products that use electronic circuitry (medical devices, which have extremely high performance requirements, are among the few exceptions). Instead, companies will have to use non-toxic components, for example replacing lead solder with tin, silver, or copper alloys.
Another law, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, requires manufacturers to take back discarded products at no cost to the consumer. More regulations are on the way, including a law known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), which will require manufacturers to register all the chemicals used in their products in a central database, explain to regulatory agencies how they are used, and assess their toxicity.
China will soon have its own alphabet soup of new laws, and there are encouraging signs that the Chinese government is serious about enforcement -- not always the case with the country's environmental laws. China's RoHS directive may be even more stringent than the European version; it restricts the use of the same six materials -- lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) -- but allows fewer exemptions in the range of products affected.
The law also requires that manufacturers submit their products to Chinese labs for certification. According to Richard J. "Tad" Ferris Jr., a partner at the law firm of Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C., and an expert in Chinese regulation, manufacturers will have to include a label or some type of disclosure with each piece of equipment, telling consumers whether it contains toxic substances, how long before these start breaking down and leaching into the environment, and whether the product can be recycled. These labeling and disclosure provisions will come into force in March 2007.
Environmental considerations have not typically been part of electronics design, and this new legal climate poses a serious challenge to manufacturers. The industry's mantra is faster, smaller, and cheaper, with a business model that depends on bringing out a constant stream of new products. But now, says Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates LLC, an electronics-industry consultancy in San Francisco, "What Europe and China are really driving toward is keeping these products in use longer, [which] goes against the industry's grain of shorter and shorter product life cycles."
The U.S. government has been notably slow to join the international legal trend, and U.S. manufacturers have been unable to agree on a common approach to the e-waste problem. In 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency began meeting with industry leaders, government agencies, and environmental groups, but the effort was abandoned in 2004 after PC and TV manufacturers failed to reach a consensus. Their basic disagreement was whether consumers should pay a recycling fee at the time of purchase (as the TV manufacturers preferred) or at the time of "take-back" (the option favored by the PC industry).
In response to the legal vacuum at the federal level, some states have adopted their own e-waste laws. At least four -- California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota -- have now banned lead-laden cathode ray tubes (CRTs) from landfills, requiring them to be sent instead to a state-certified recycler. (A deluge of discarded CRTs seems imminent as consumers replace their TVs and computer monitors with sleek new flat-screen models.) California, Maine, Maryland, and Washington have already passed electronics recycling laws, and at least 20 other states are considering them. Some municipalities, such as New York City, are also adopting their own rules.
The regulatory noose seems likely to tighten, especially as China increases its share (now about 30 percent) of the world's consumer-related electronics manufacturing. Realists in the industry seem to accept that the new standards will end up becoming a worldwide norm. "We don't see this as a China and E.U. thing," says Dave Douglas, vice president of eco-responsibility at Sun Microsystems. "We see it as a global thing."
In the meantime, by forcing manufacturers to disclose more information about the environmental safety of their products, the new laws should at least encourage consumers to vote with their dollars -- which is, after all, how the free market is supposed to work.
-- Tam Harbert
Freelance writer Tam Harbert specializes in business, technology, and public policy.