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Report Shows Few Computer Companies Make Recycling Effort If Law Doesn’t Make Them

February 25th, 2011

Four companies accounted for 92% of the e-waste collected under the Texas program in 2010. Graphic by Texas Campaign for the Environment.

So far, 23 states have passed e-waste recycling laws which hold the manufacturers responsible, to varying degrees, for taking back and recycling their old products. One of the questions legislators wrestle with when considering such a law is whether simply requiring the companies to have a takeback program is adequate, or whether the law needs to include stronger language that sets goals or expectations for the companies’ takeback efforts.

Some states have laws with collection goals or specific measures for requiring how convenient collection must be. But several states, including Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Missouri, have passed laws which simply require the companies to offer a takeback program, but which don’t establish any specific obligations. (The Texas law says that recycling options must be free, “reasonably convenient” and “designed to meet the collection needs of consumers in this state.”) As a result, companies can really do whatever they want – including simply offering a mail back program, even though they know few consumers will actually use it.

How hard do the companies try?

So what do companies do when the law gives them that much latitude? Do they rise to the challenge and launch robust takeback programs to take back their products statewide?  Not even close. As a case study, we can look at Texas, which has just released results from 2010, the second year of their takeback program.

The Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE), a statewide environmental organization (and a partner group in the Electronics TakeBack Coalition) has just release a new report called “Making TakeBack Work Better in Texas,” which analyzes the results from Year 2 of the Texas e-waste law. (They had to obtain most of the information by Freedom of Information request, because the Texas law doesn’t require public disclosure of each company’s efforts – something other states should be sure their laws DO require.)

Dell, Samsung, Sony and Altex Collect 92% of the Volume

The Texas law covers IT equipment – computers, monitors, laptops, but not televisions. (A bill to require takeback for TVs is under consideration this year.) The TCE report shows that for the second year in a row, many of the companies are doing NOTHING, with almost half of them reporting ZERO pounds collected. And while the total volume collected almost doubled from 2009 to 2010, only a small number of leadership companies are taking back most of the volumes. There were 78 companies selling computers in Texas in 2010. According to the TCE report, more than 92% of the 24 million pounds of electronic waste collected in 2010 was collected by only four manufacturers: Dell, Samsung, Sony and Altex Electronics (a small San Antonio based company). The remaining eight percent was collected by 38 manufacturers that do business in Texas. Thirty-six manufacturers collected zero pounds.

HP: Missing in Action

This is an atrocious discrepancy. Of course, we applaud Dell, Samsung, Sony, and Altex for taking the law seriously and for serving their customers in Texas with serious takeback efforts. In 2009, Dell alone accounted for 85% of the total 15 million pounds collected, so they are continuing their leadership here collecting over 10 million lbs.

But one of the most disappointing results in 2010 is HP’s performance. In 2010 HP collected a paltry 45,931 lbs. That’s 0.19 per cent of the total 24 million lbs. (Not 19%, but 0.19, as in less than 1 per cent.) HP has roughly the same market share as Dell (often a couple points more) in the U.S., so one would expect roughly the same effort at takeback. A small company like Altex, with nine stores and less than 250 employees, collected 2,679,924 lbs. HP has a large Texas presence resulting from acquiring Compaq (Houston) and EDS (Plano), but they are clearly making little effort in that state.

Another underperformer was Lenovo, which reported a whopping 10 pounds collected.

Laws Needed to Level the Playing Field

One of the important roles for state laws on e-waste recycling is that of  leveling the playing field between companies’  takeback efforts. The companies clearly respond differently to the concept of “producer responsibility.”  While the leaders like Dell, Samsung, Altex, and Sony should be commended for these efforts (and customers should definitely consider these efforts when we decide whose products to purchase), there may be a point when these companies decide to do less, as long as their competitors can get away with doing nothing.  Instead, the point of the state laws should be to encourage everyone to do more.  Clearly, we are seeing better results (higher volumes) in states like MN, OR, WA and others where there is language that mandates performance requirements for the companies, either as collection goals or convenience requirements (or a combination of the two).  States should look carefully at these results from Texas, and move ahead by adopting stronger laws (even revising some existing laws) to encourage all the companies to make a real effort to take back and recycle our e-waste, keeping it out of our landfills.

Read report by Texas Campaign by the Environment.