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This article is from the In-Depth Report China, the Olympics, and the Environment

New E-Waste Standards: Junking Electronic Gadgets without Trashing the Planet

Voluntary efforts by manufacturers are beginning to eliminate some of the most toxic compounds in e-waste



© Greenpeace

Last Sunday, six Greenpeace activists boarded a ship named the Yang Ming Success in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. Their mission: to prevent workers from unloading so-called e-waste, the toxic remnants of computers and other electronic devices. They succeeded—this time.

The U.S. and some European countries often ship electronic junk to Hong Kong for disassembly in mainland China, where copper, iron and other valuable metals inside are removed and sold. Greenpeace and other environmental groups warn that workers, who wear little or no protective gear when they handle the devices, breathe in toxic heavy metals that include lung-damaging cadmium as well as lead and mercury (both known to cause brain damage). The toxic metals—as well as the fumes emitted by burning plastic and the like that stem from attempts to strip out components—also contaminate the air and water.

Citing the dangers, the Chinese government in 2000 banned the importation of any of the estimated 50 million metric tons of e-waste generated worldwide each year, nearly three million metric tons of which is produced in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After China officially cut off imports, much of the business shifted to less developed countries with little or no regulation, including Pakistan and Nigeria, but legal loopholes still allow some shipments to make it through to China, according to Lo Sze Ping, communications director for Hong Kong–based Greenpeace China.

The key to stopping the damage, Ping argues, is to bar the use of toxic metals in computers—and to recycle (rather than throw out) those now in use. The U.S. computer industry has responded by adopting a voluntary program called Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) that is designed to provide standards for greener computers as well as to keep discarded electronics out of landfills, where the majority end up. (There currently are no federal regulations governing electronics disposal in the U.S., but a handful of states, such as California and Massachusetts, along with environmentalists, are pushing Congress to adopt federal mandates.)

EPEAT was launched two years ago by the Green Electronics Council (GEC), a nonprofit group based in Portland, Ore., that was created in 2004 to encourage the manufacture of environmentally friendly electronics. One of the ways they attempt to do this is by rating desktop and laptop computers and monitors based on 51 green criteria, such as limits on the amount of cadmium they contain and whether they are packaged in recyclable materials. Products achieve bronze, silver or gold ratings according to how well they comply with the EPEAT guidelines: Earning a gold rating requires that devices meet at least 41 of the standards. So far, only 68 (of 601 computer models graded) have taken the gold. The majority (510) got silver (and, so, met at least 35 of the standards), whereas 23 have claimed the bronze rating, according to the EPEAT Web site.

Roughly 109 million of these EPEAT-certified computers and monitors were sold globally last year (just over 22 percent of total worldwide sales), according to the program's report. It also notes that these computers used 75.5 million metric tons fewer toxic materials in their manufacture, including 3,220 metric tons less mercury.

All told, the report says the program helped eliminate enough mercury to fill more than 480,000 thermometers, primarily because large purchasers, such as U.S. government agencies, bought computer screens lighted by light-emitting diodes (LED)—a new lighting technology that does not employ mercury as did cold-cathode compact fluorescent lightbulbs of the past.

Lead also is rarely used any more, according to GEC director Jeff Omelchuk. "The first massive [source of lead in electronics] is lead in glass in [cathode-ray tube] monitors. When was the last time you bought a CRT monitor? Technology has moved us away from that one," Omelchuk says. It is "still a huge issue in e-waste but, from a new design perspective, that source of lead is rapidly diminishing."

EPEAT-certified computers deliver energy savings as well, according to the report: 42.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity over their life spans, which means 3.31 million metric tons fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their uncertified computing counterparts—the equivalent of taking 2.6 million cars off the road. If energy savings are factored in, EPEAT computers actually save money—$3.7 billion over their lifetimes compared to uncertified counterparts, the report says.

Consumers interested in seeing EPEAT ratings of particular brands can log onto the EPEAT Web site. But there's still the matter of printers, televisions, and 130 million cell phones discarded worldwide each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, which is focused on monitoring and solving environmental problems. Omelchuk says that EPEAT hopes to expand its programs to cover such devices as well in the near future.

Shipments of e-waste to Hong Kong and other ports may also become a thing of the past, he says, if manufacturers stick to one of EPEAT's guidelines that calls for them to offer to take back and recycle old computers.

"One of the 51 criteria requires manufacturers to offer to institutional purchasers to take the product back at the end of its life at a reasonable cost," Omelchuk says. Already, major U.S. computer makers like Hewlett-Packard are working on extending these programs to individuals as well. "Solving the e-waste problem is more about developing the appropriate infrastructure to recover the darn things simply for their intrinsic value."

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