Greenwash, Green Certification and Consumer Responsibility

Commenting on a recent “Countering Greenwash” post, one insightful reader pointed out how “green” product certifications, such as the EPA-backed, Green Electronic Council’s EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) and the United Nations led StEP (Solving the E-Waste Program) – can be an excellent means of getting past the greenwash. I can only agree, depending of course, on the quality of the criteria and the rigor of any green product’s assessment.
With support from the EPA, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) in March, 2006 released IEEE 1680 “Standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products”, the first in the U.S. set of standardized criteria to assist purchasing departments and other organizations reduce the environmental impact of the computers they buy, use and discard.
On January 24, 2007 President Bush issued an executive order mandating that all federal agencies buy EPEAT registered green electronic products for at least 95% of their needs. This January, the federal government incorporated the EPEAT requirement into its Federal Acquisition Regulations, which stipulates the purchasing requirements of all federal organizations.
On Feb. 25, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Directive 08-01 which aims to “limit the environmental impact of the lifecycle of equipment, from production through use to disposal. Actions called for in this Directive aim to reduce municipal government’s ICT-related greenhouse gas emissions by 24% by 2012,” according to a media release. One aspect of the directive is that, come April, city departments will only purchase computers and monitors that at minimum qualify for EPEAT’s Silver standard, but preferably can meet the criteria required for Gold standard status.
Some 509 electronic products – including desktop PCs, notebooks, integrated systems and monitors – have been awarded EPEAT bronze, silver or gold certifications to date. The fact is, though, that a large majority of consumers in the U.S. continue to simply throw used PCs, laptops, cell phones and the myriad other electronic devices in the trash. They’re then taken to landfills where they are mixed in, broken up and left to decay in the overall waste stream, leaving municipalities -and the taxpaying consumer to pick up the costs – monetary, environmental and ultimately those related to health care.

Need for Standardized Parts & Components
The EPA estimates that in 2005 only 330,000 pounds, or 12.5%, of the 2.63 million tons of electronic waste that was disposed of was recovered for recycling. The other 87.5 percent ended up in landfills or incinerators. Exactly how those that are given up for recycling are being recycled is a large, thorny and troubling problem in and of itself. Compounding the problem is that much of what is turned in for recycling may wind up being shipped – legitimately or under false pretenses – to any one of a number of third world dumping grounds.
If an individual consumer does turn his or her PC, laptop or other computer device in for recycling, it’s likely to end up in an independent recycling shop like PC Recycler, which operates recycling centers in Virginia and New York. The business is a growing one. Though the company, which is privately held, does not disclose revenues, PC Recycler’s business grew 160 percent by weight of PCs processed year over year, according to company president Jeremy Farber.
Chances are that a laptop turned into a recycling center for recycling will be reconditioned and sold second-hand or broken down for parts rather than recycled, which means their recycling costs to consumers are lower than they otherwise would be, Farber explained.
“There still is a fair amount of residual value in laptops– they are in higher demand. We charge about $2.50 to process a laptop – a little below the market average, but we get so many…Only 20 percent are actually recycled; the rest get reconditioned and reused…We work with a couple of companies that reuse the parts, even plastic casing.”
OEMs exert a big influence on the profitability of independent recyclers, according to Farber.
Besides their in-house recycling programs being competitors, each manufacturer has its own particular design, parts and assembly specifications which add to the difficulty, and cost, of recycling laptops to independent recyclers. “The manufacturers don’t make it easy – they use non-standard configurations. They’re manufactured different ways by different manufacturers; the assembly is completely different so that forces us to have a higher standard worker and process to recycle them,” Farber elaborated.
Legislative Impetus
The fact that 95% of computing products bought by the single largest purchaser of electronic products in the U.S. – the federal government – are required to be EPEAT certified is a big incentive for OEMs to establish their own in-house recycling programs. And it’s giving independent recycling businesses a boost as well. While big OEMs such as HP – which works with Noranda as a recycling partner for its in-house program – are able to operate their own in-house recycling programs, smaller manufacturers don’t have the capabilities or resources to put their own programs together, Farber noted. PC Recycler is beginning to do business with smaller and medium-sized OEMs and resellers interested in partnering with them as a recycling depot, he said.
The legislative impetus moving sound, effective standards-based electronics recycling is now coming to head in the US. Twenty-three states introduced electronics recycling bills in 2007. “It’s actually being adopted faster than I thought it would–three states over three years, ‚Äò04-’06; this year five states adopted producer take-back laws for e-waste,” said Robin Schneider, vice chair of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.
“Electronics is really the cutting edge of producer take-back programs in the US. Because five bills passed, and in such diverse places–California, Texas, Connecticut, Minnesota and North Carolina– this year it became clear that’s the way we’re going,” she continued. “State and local governments made a big difference; they realize they cannot afford all the costs and problems associated with e-waste and we’ve convinced the major electronics companies to support that…The bill here in Texas was drafted by Dell and supported by HP after we did corporate campaigning and pressured them since 2002.”

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email:

4 responses

  1. Great article! The Green Electronics Council has looked at the issues with recycling when forming EPEAT criteria. One of the required criteria for EPEAT products is that manufacturers provide a product take-back service. Purchasers will have the option “purchase, at a competitive price, a take-back or recycling service that meets the U.S. EPA environmental standard defined in the “Plug-In to eCycling Guidelines for Materials Management,” published May 2004.”
    It also addresses the challenges of recycling equipment with required and optional criteria that manufactures build their equipment for easy disassembly.
    EPEAT really is a great tool that could serve as a model for how to guide manufacturers to take responsibility for their products and communicate to their customers as well. Further, it’s easy for purchasers of institutions to require the purchase of EPEAT equipment giving the industry further incentive to build products to higher standards.

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