Federal officials spent several years working with industry trying to develop a nationwide plan, but e-waste recycling remains expensive, and manufacturers are split on whether to eat the costs or pass them on to consumers as a surcharge with each purchase.
"They came to a consensus about what the system would look like, but they couldn't come to an agreement on how to pay for it," said Katharine Osdoba, an EPA staff member who participated in the talks.
It is estimated that by 2010, the United States will junk 400 million electronic devices, items containing toxic metals.
(Nati Harnik -- AP)
Dunne, who recently told a group of recyclers and manufacturers that he sees himself as "more of a facilitator and less of a regulator," said in an interview he has no plans to pursue new rules or legislation. Instead, he has asked his staff to develop a voluntary plan. EPA issued nonbinding guidelines in March on electronic-waste management, and it has backed pilot programs under which such retailers as Staples, Office Depot and Good Guys in Australia agree to recycle electronics at no charge for several weeks at a time.
Staples, which recycled about 210,000 pounds of high-tech trash last year, now takes back electronics such as cell phones, pagers, toner cartridges and hand-held devices at any time, no matter where they were purchased. The company's vice president for environmental affairs, Mark Buckley, said his firm recognizes this is "a mounting problem, and we want to come up with a creative solution." But Buckley added that Staples will not be able "to come up with a total solution" on its own, especially in light of the costs of recycling.
The federal government disposes of 10,000 computers a week, and officials say they are focused on more incremental steps to deal with their contribution to the problem. In mid-December EPA awarded eight contracts of about $1 million each aimed at helping federal agencies dispose of electronic equipment without hurting the environment. The Dec. 29 release noted "this complex waste stream poses challenging management issues and potential liability concerns for federal facilities."
Advocates such as Ted Smith, senior strategist for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, said federal officials could be doing more to make electronics more environmentally benign. The European Union has ordered the phaseout of several toxins from electronic products by the summer of 2006, and by this summer electronic manufacturers must establish a system of recycling hazardous products when they become outdated.
California was the first state to adopt comprehensive e-waste rules; as of Jan. 1 the state's computer and TV retailers must charge a disposal fee of $6 to $10 to pay for recycling these products once they are no longer useful. Maine followed with a somewhat similar approach: by the end of the year it will make producers responsible for taking back and disposing safely of obsolete electronics.
But most federal officials are reluctant to take on the electronics industry, Smith said: "We're talking about some very powerful interests who have made it very clear they don't want to do any more than they're required to."
Some high-tech producers are adopting stricter disposal practices on their own: Hewlett-Packard Development Co. has pledged not to ship its waste overseas, and Dell Inc. has agreed not to export old computers, use prison labor to dismantle them or dump them in landfills. Both Hewlett-Packard and IBM will recycle any personal computer for a fee of $13 to $34; several recyclers said dismantling a unit in an environmentally sound manner costs from $4 to $20.
These firms are turning to environmentally sensitive recyclers such as RetroBox, a Columbus, Ohio, company that has doubled in size each year since it was founded seven years ago. RetroBox -- headed by a cheerful Harvard Business School graduate named Stampp Corbin, who sees America's high-tech rejects as a healthy revenue stream -- assures its customers that it will recycle their old electronics and then give them 70 percent of his profits, while simultaneously wiping any confidential business or personal data out of old hard drives.
Corbin, who has 85 employees, expects his profits to double by the end of 2005. Recycling is the only option companies have, he said, "unless we want to take a small country in the world and make it into an e-waste landfill."