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Not Easy Being Green

Las Vegas — Consumer electronic manufacturers and retailers could face unpleasant legislative surprises in regards to recycling mandates in the near future. This was one of the key points brought up during the Keeping CE off the Curb SuperSession at CES, moderated by Brian Taylor, editor in chief of Recycling Today. The panel addressed concerns that the CE industry may face with mandatory recycling fees and programs being implemented across the country.

Notably in October, Washington State adopted new dangerous waste regulations that impact the sale of and recycling of covered electronic products (CEPs) throughout the state, including computers, televisions, computer monitors and laptop computers.

“You had to register as a manufacturer a couple of years back, and this past holiday season it was found at some retailers that some vendors were not compliant and there were discussions on pulling items from store shelves,” said Erik Stromguist, executive VP of Nexus Electronics/CTL. “It was quite serious — if you weren’t registered, you could have a big liability. That was an unpleasant surprise.”

The CE industry has been making strides to address the issue of recycling. Several manufacturers already have programs in place to help consumers turn in old products, and the panel was in agreement that the key to success is making products as easy for consumers to recycle as these were to purchase.

But despite these efforts there is still the concern of future legislation. “We could see potentially New York City passing a law, and that could be of concern because it could set a bad example for too many new laws,” said David A. Thompson, director, corporate environment department at Panasonic. “We would be left with a patch work of laws. And this could mean higher costs for the consumer in the long run.”

Another key point debated by the panel focused on how CE products don’t necessarily have pre-determined shelf-lives. Nor are all products created, or recycled equally. While some devices, notably PCs, can find continued life in the secondary market, other devices are only deposed of by consumers when they no longer work.

“We’re seeing products that have no resale value. We’re seeing consumers keeping these products much longer than we would have thought.” says Renee St. Denis, director of product take-back and recycling for Hewlett-Packard Company. “These are products that are eight, 11 or 12 years old. These are deposed of only when they are broken and have no real value.”

One product sector that already has real value, regardless of the age of the devices, is mobile phones. The recycling of mobile devices is very established, and could serve as a model for the rest of the CE industry. While there remain high costs for the cleaning and recycling of glass from CRT televisions and other large products Jeff Zeigler, CEO of TechTurn, a company devoted to technology recovery, refurbishing and remarketing, said that the recycling business for mobile phones has become very mature and sophisticated, and for this reason profitable.

“Those systems for recycling work fantastically today. The wireless carrier, the retailer and the OEM all want your phone back.” Zeigler added that other products are much harder for consumers to recycle. “We have retailers asking us every week if we’ll take all the available televisions. That’s a much different conversation.”