Stay in Front of the Regulators – Get a Handle on E-Waste

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In a recent post I wrote about the electronics disposal efficiency metric (EDE) that The Green Grid has come up with to help users and manufacturers of electronic equipment measure how well they manage electronic waste. I encouraged folks to learn more about EDE and the e-waste topic in general because we are likely to see regulations in this area soon.

Here’s why I can say that with some confidence. The way the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. typically comes up with regulations is it first declares a particular substance to be a hazard. For example, years ago the EPA deemed lead to be hazardous and today we’ve got all kinds of regulations around how you should dispose of things such as lead acid batteries.

Well the EPA hasn’t yet declared electronic equipment such as computers, printers and monitors to be hazardous, but they are asking those of us in the industry questions about electronic waste – and that’s the first step.

And it’s not as if this is happening in a vacuum. The European Commission in 2004 issued its first Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, and has updated it a number of times since. WEEE says each EU member state is responsible for tracking the amount of electronic equipment that comes into the state and for making sure it is disposed of in a responsible way that promotes recycling.

In the U.S., we’ve got the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) an EPA regulatory framework that controls the use of certain chemicals in areas such as manufacturing, to ensure they don’t pose “unreasonable risk.” The chemicals include asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Similar regulations exist in many other countries.

While laws like TSCA regulate how potentially hazardous chemicals can be used, they don’t regulate how they are to be disposed of like WEEE does. Responsible disposal has become such an issue that some countries are taking dramatic steps to deal with it. Ecuador, for example, last year imposed limits on the number of mobile phones that could enter the country each year in order to reduce its resulting hazardous waste.

In the U.S., state and local governments are taking the e-waste issue into their own hands. California and Massachusetts, for example, don’t allow equipment such as televisions, computers, monitors and printers to be disposed of in landfills, instead requiring them to be taken to licensed recycling companies. (In Mass., the law has turned into a fundraising bonanza, as non-profit groups routinely host events where residents can bring in their used electronics and pay a fee to have it taken to a recycler. The non-profit takes a cut of the funds raised.) Once a few states get on board, it’s only a matter of time until the feds catch up and write their own regulations.

Given that, it behooves organizations that use lots of electronic equipment to get in front of the issue by paying attention to metrics like The Green Grid’s EDE.  As you investigate, you’ll find lots of ways to responsibly dispose of your e-waste, and maybe even get some financial benefit out of the deal.

That’s because companies that make electronic equipment often offer trade-in deals through which you can exchange old gear for a discount on new, upgraded models. Schneider Electric offers such a program for UPS products, for example. If you need a new UPS battery, you can instead trade in the whole UPS unit and get a discount on a new one, which is likely more energy efficient – a double benefit. Companies like HP and Dell offer similar deals on their products.

Such deals make sense for both parties. At Schneider, we have a financial incentive to recycle our own products, both to make sure lead from the UPS batteries doesn’t wind up in the waste stream but also because it’s an inexpensive way for us to get lead to make new batteries. For customers, the program provides an easy way to recycle e-waste and they get a credit toward a new product at the same time. The fact that both sides are being good citizens at the same time is a bonus.

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