Japan leads the way with electronics recycling

Japanese electronics firms lead the world in environmental investments, according to a new report on recycling electronic equipment. The report also notes that government-run take-back systems within Europe are less effective than those run by industry.

The report, by US recycling information service, Raymond Communications, incorporates a survey of 28 major electronics makers, from Apple to Xerox. Of these companies, nearly all brand owners have some sort of internal recycling system for commercial products, says the report (see related story).

Those with a mostly commercial customer base are able to attain high recovery rates, and appear to be reusing parts and finding ways to use recycled plastics. Nearly all have reduced their use of hazardous materials, and all have saved money through doing so. All companies still using lead solder and brominated flame retardants have schemes to phase them out.

Whilst electronics manufacturers appear, on the whole, to be happy to take back their own brand electronic waste for recycling, companies fear the extra costs associated with recycling ‘orphan’ products – those whose manufacturers no longer exist, and whose costs will probably have to be shared amongst the rest of the industry.

There are also an increasing number of government-run schemes. Across the world there are currently 11 countries with take-back laws for electronic equipment and, with the advent of two electronics recycling directives in Europe requiring producers to take responsibility, within five years this will have swelled to 28 nations (see related story).

However, government systems that rely on local authorities for collection and funding collect less than industry-run systems, says the report. “If the government system relies on voluntary participation and expects local government to absorb costs it just doesn’t get done too efficiently,” Michele Raymond, publisher of the report told edie. Such systems would never work in the US as local governments would complain loudly and raise taxes, she said.

One of the most effective schemes appears at first glance to be the 85% recycling scheme in Taiwan. However, Raymond points out that the country’s electronics recycling facility is still being constructed, and so she suspects that they are collecting 85%, but currently storing it rather than recycling.

However, the level of recycling varies enormously from country to country. “It appears that culture plays a big role in recovery rates,” says the report. For example, when comparing Europe and the US, in the US landfilling is much cheaper, and waste per capita is around double that of the EU. In Europe, space is also often at a premium.

Space is at even more of a premium in Japan, where a co-operative culture and an atmosphere of innovation has meant that industry spent two years preparing for the country’s electronics recycling laws. “You really can’t compare Japan with other countries, especially the US,” Raymond told edie.

However, whilst Japan, Korea and Taiwan are enthusiastic about recycling electronic goods, the rest of Asia is more cautious, fearing that they will scare away investment if companies are given too many obligations.

The US has also been slow to recycle its electronic waste, although as of May this year there are 24 electronics bills being passed through 10 state legislatures, and there is the possibility of a national take-back plan. However, earlier this year, electronic waste campaign group, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), revealed that up to 80% of the country’s electronics waste was being sent to China, Pakistan and India as the cheapest option for disposal. Unfortunately, dismantling of the waste equipment is carried out by hand by workers in poor conditions, with no protective clothing or equipment (see related story).

Edie also recently reported on a UK company that processes 30,000 units of computer equipment each month, renovating and recycling, and providing their owners with a good return for their unwanted computers (see related story).

Electronics Recycling: What to Expect from Global Mandates is available from Raymond Publishing for US$350.

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