The American NGO As You Sow is successful in its effort to push Best Buy, the largest US electronics retailers to offer free take back of electronic waste in more than 10 of its US stores.
Electronic waste is the fastest growing component of our waste stream, growing nearly three times faster than municipal waste. Although computers and televisions contain significant levels of toxic compounds including lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, most computers are currently not recycled or even disposed of properly. This is creating a growing hazard as toxic elements can seep into groundwater or expose workers. Studies have stated that between 315 to 600 million desk tops and laptops will be obsolete in the United States in the next few years. One report estimates that a pile of these obsolete computers would reach a mile high and cover six acres. That's the same as a 22-story pile of e-waste covering the entire 472 square miles of the City of Los Angeles.
As You Sow is leading or participating in concurrent dialogues with the four major U.S. computer manufacturers-Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. We are urging these industry leaders to take responsibility for most of the cost of product recycling; to reach an industry-wide agreement on infrastructure for efficient product take back; and develop better systems for safe, transparent breakdown and recycling of products.
As You Sow is proud to report significant success in moving computer makers toward more responsible practices:
Apple Computer in 2006 responded to As You Sow by implementing a free computer recycling program for customers who buy new computers. In turn Dell announced it would accept any Dell computer even without the purchase of a new one.
In response to our requests for measurable goals, Dell set and surpassed its initial take-back goal of recycling 50% more equipment in fiscal year 2005 than it did in fiscal 2004. Also, HP committed to an initial recycling goal.
Dell has developed a system of electronics recovery for others to emulate by providing financial incentives to employees to encourage take back, and by viewing its take back operations as a profit center rather than a cost.
Using publicly released data and a rate of return metric, As You Sow developed a preliminary ranking of computer take-back leaders and laggards. We also note significant hurdles to be overcome to achieve better reporting.
We are working with human rights activists to press these same companies to monitor how workers assembling electronics are treated in contract supplier factories. In response, leading companies have developed a common code of vendor conduct and are working on implementation of it.
A future goal of our work is to focus on safe disposal of old computer systems. While it is laudable to keep old units out of landfills, we want to ensure that smelting or incineration of computer components does not create new environmental hazards.
The full story as well as the related press release can be found on the As You Sow website.