Opinion: Why environmental groups are wrong about e-waste

'Reupgrading' works better than recycling

Environmental groups like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, among others, have been in the news lately, chiding gadget makers in general and Apple in particular for bad environmental policies. They're bringing attention to the growing mountains of toxic PCs, cell phones, iPods and other electronics in landfills and pushing governments for "green" regulation.

This problem is real, and I applaud these and dozens of other organizations that are working to make a difference. But their prescriptions for consumer action -- what they want you and me to do about e-waste -- is actually bad for the environment. I'll tell you why in a minute. I'll also outline a superior alternative to the recycling they are demanding. But first, let's review the problem.

The trouble with e-trash

Consumer Reports says Americans threw away about 3 million tons of electronics in 2003. Some 700 million cell phones have already been thrown away worldwide, with 130 million disposed of in 2005 alone.

Worse, this stuff is toxic. Old-school CRT monitors and TVs average about 6 pounds of poisonous lead, which is the leading source of this toxic substance in landfills. Most PCs and electronic gadgets contain circuit boards packed with toxic metals like chromium, zinc and nickel. Even the plastics contain toxic flame-retardant chemicals.

A recent report by researchers at the University of California at Irvine analyzed the chemical brew that leaches out of cell phones in a landfill and found toxic lead, copper, nickel, antimony and zinc all creating a serious hazard. Consumer Reports says that only 10% of discarded PCs are recycled "responsibly."

About 80% of discarded electronics is currently sent to a handful of developing countries like China, India and Kenya, where people (including small children) dismantle the gadgets for parts and metals. The work is dangerous and low-paying, and greatly increases life-threatening water and soil pollution in those countries and air pollution globally. Forthcoming laws in most industrialized countries will effectively ban this practice. We're going to have to deal with our own toxic e-waste problem in the future, and we won't be able to just export the problem.

But what should we do about it?

The trouble with environmental groups

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other organizations push recycling hard. They want you to participate either in the "take-back" programs offered by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and others, or find a recycler to take your e-junk.

However, this overemphasis on recycling fails to take advantage of the special nature of electronic equipment. Gadgets are completely different from other products that we recycle. Worse, pushing recycling is actually hurting the environment, and I call on all these groups to rethink their obsession with recycling, at least in this particular matter.

Here are five reasons why recycling electronic gear is bad for the environment:

1. Recycling pollutes. Unlike other commonly recycled products, such as cans and paper, the processes for recycling electronics is monstrously time-consuming, labor-intensive and wasteful. Recycling gadgets involves refurbishing (testing, fixing and reusing), demanufacturing (stripping for parts) or extracting raw materials (such as metals). Every single device must be carefully and individually handled in these processes, which nearly always results in incomplete recycling anyway. It requires heated buildings with lights burning, power tools, trucking -- all kinds of processes that are bad for the environment.

2.Recycling doesn't cut gadget production. It feels good to drop old junk off at the local recycling center, but doing that actually provides an incentive for manufacturers to keep cranking out millions of new gadgets, which will all have to be dealt with eventually. Environmental groups should be pushing consumers to demand that manufacturers make fewer devices.

3. Recycling demands virtue and so will fail. Recycling requires individual sacrifice for the collective good. When is the last time that worked? People cut gas use and buy hybrid cars because gas is too expensive, not because they want to help the earth (with exceptions). If environmental groups are waiting for everyone to become a good citizen, they're going to wait a long time. They should be educating consumers on how to make choices that both benefit the consumers personally and help the environment.

4. Recycling doesn't improve products. One of the biggest contributors to e-waste is lousy products, which people either get tired of or get rid of because they're too hard or unpleasant to use. Excellent products are more desirable to keep around and last longer.

5. Recycling feeds one of the biggest environmental problems: lazy storage. Environmental groups push recycling electronics over throwing them away. But most buyers do neither. I think recycling contributes to this. People feel weird throwing a working cell phone in the trash and know they should recycle. But people are busy and they procrastinate. There's no urgency; something can be recycled now, or 10 years from now. What's the difference? Environmental groups should be pushing for action to get these devices out of the garage and into the hands of people who can use them as soon as possible, before they're obsolete.

Here's the solution

It's time for environmental groups to stop pushing the feel-good panacea of recycling and start advocating a practice I call "reupgrading." Reupgrading (recycling through upgrading), involves selling your gadget when it's still practically new and using the money to upgrade to a better gadget (buying used if possible).

Technology created the problem of e-waste, and technology provides the solution. Online sites like eBay, Craigslist and others are ideal for buying and selling used electronics. I'm talking about treating cell phones and PCs like we do high-value products such as cars, not like low-value products such as newspapers. With cars, we repair them when they're broken, sell them when we buy a new one and squeeze decades of use out of them.

Here are six reasons why reupgrading is better than recycling:

1. Reupgrading "recycles" gadgets efficiently. Reupgrading is energy- and labor-efficient. Nothing has to be processed, and no testing, refurbishing or disassembly is required. And reupgrading takes advantage of miniaturization. Cell phones, digital camera and media players are light and cheap to ship.

2. Reupgrading forces manufacturers to make fewer devices. By buying used electronics en masse, consumers can force much lower unit sales by gadget makers. That's the best thing we can do for the environment.

3. Reupgrading takes advantage of self-interest. Early adopters and serious users sell gadgets to fund their next purchase. They get to upgrade more frequently and always stay on the bleeding edge without a huge financial penalty. Bargain hunters get more for their money. If your budget for a new laptop is $800, would you rather have a powerful system that's cheap because it's used or a brand-new clunker that's cheap because it's too weak to run Windows Vista?

4. Reupgrading punishes junk manufacturers. If more purchases are made initially by knowledgeable power users, and if the bargain hunters buy better products used rather than seeking out the cheapest new junk, companies will work harder to serve the high end of the market. As a result, the average device in every category will be better and easier to sell, and enjoy a longer life.

5. Reupgrading addresses the biggest problem: lazy storage. By selling a gadget as soon as you buy a new one, you're motivated by self-interest to move the device out of your house and into full, productive use while its still valuable.

6. Reupgrading takes pressure off recycling centers. Many of the devices taken to recycling centers are going to be used by someone anyway, but only after a costly and environmentally unfriendly process.

The biggest hurdle for the reupgrading movement is psychological. People have been conditioned by marketing to want brand-new electronics. But part of this is a delusion -- we're already getting used products. Carriers already sell "refurbished" phones. Often, when a manufacturer replaces a damaged unit, it sends you a "used" phone. These devices tend to work exactly like new ones. It's just an idea we need to get used to. It would help if the environmental groups pushed this notion.

Meanwhile, if you want to embrace the reupgrading movement, here are my best reupgrading tips:

1. Always look for maximum resale value when you buy (and force manufacturers to make longer-lasting products). Upgrade frequently.

2. Always consider buying used instead of new. Become skilled at monitoring the auction and classified ad sites for deals.

3. Sell your previous model on eBay, Craigslist or similar site as soon as possible, while it still has maximum value.

4. Always keep packaging to facilitate shipping and enhance value.

5. Always keep items such as cables and accessories. To enhance value, bundle them free when you sell the old model if they don't work with the new.

6. If something breaks, fix it before selling or donating. You'll get a better price or make a better contribution, and you might be able to do it with your existing warranty or insurance that the buyer may not have.

Recycling e-waste is good, but only as the last resort. It's time the environmental groups start pushing for reupgrading and stop pushing recycling. It's better for the environment, and it's better for you and me.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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