Will the next administration in Washington make the collection and recycling of consumer electronics junk - aka "e-waste" - a national priority?
Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro recently told an industry gathering that a Barack Obama presidency would likely result in a national e-waste recycling law, something the CEA (and this writer) have been encouraging for several years.
McCain, on the other hand, would help the industry as a "passionate advocate of free trade," argued Shapiro - a nice way of saying that he'd keep prices down on imports but would leave it to the individual states and electronics manufacturers (as had President George W. Bush) to work out a recycling agenda unto themselves.
GREASING THE WHEELS: Right now, it's the "squeaky wheel" that's getting most of the grease.
The Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company - a joint venture of Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba, working in partnership with private recycling facilities - has just inaugurated a TV and consumer-electronics recycling program in 10 states. Most already have laws on the books that demand that manufacturers take back their old, obsolete goods whenever they sell us new ones.
Sony and Samsung also have gotten into the e-waste take-back business, partnering with concerns such as Waste Management and Goodwill.
All these operations vow that potentially hazardous materials (like the lead that's in picture tubes and painted on circuit boards) is being handled responsibly. No, the junk's not just loaded on barges and shipped off to a Third World country for sloppy processing and landfilling.
The big-brand reprocessors also promise that their take-back programs will eventually extend to all 50 states, even if there aren't local laws on the books.
But, with a national policy in place, you can be assured that the movement would pick up speed, maybe even put some people to work and, not incidentally, help clean up the environment.
THE BEAST OF BURDEN: At present, it's your job as a product owner to get those unwanted goods back to the maker or its representative.
That's not so easily done when it's a 175-pound monster of an analog TV you're trashing to make room for a slim-line digital model, as tens of millions of consumers are doing as they transition to the all-digital TV age.
Most company-sponsored services are taking back items bearing their own brand for free. But the operations charge you for another company's goods, even if it's an out-of-business brand.
Most confounding, you'd think these recycling sites would be located in or near big cities, where most of the customers are. But the closest sponsored sites to my town, Philadelphia, are at least an hour's drive away, if not more.
Clearly, a national recycling agenda would get more plants opened in more convenient locales.
THE WAYS OF THE EAST: Another policy strikes this writer as weird and in need of change.
Recycling laws on the books in locales like Minnesota, Texas, Washington and Rhode Island zero in on TVs, monitors, computers and (maybe) printers. There's no requirement to take back major appliances - refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines and the like - which often then wind up at the dump.
But look at the experience of take-back facilities in Japan. There, the mix of electronic and those so-called "white goods" makes it possible for a recycling plant to pay its own way, maybe even make a small profit. Big appliances contain valuable metals (especially copper cooling lines) that can be reclaimed profitably, plus plenty of plastic to transform into dandy road paving, car-seat foam and flooring materials.
Oh, and Japan's recycling system maximizes the returns by making it really, really easy for consumers to participate. All you have to do is put out tagged products at curbside.
U.S. RETAIL ALTERNATIVES: Chains like OfficeMax, Staples and Best Buy have in-store recycling bins for used batteries and toner cartridges - a good move.
For $10 to $15 a pop, OfficeMax and Staples also reclaim computers, monitors and printers that are boxed and brought into the store. And Best Buy is test-marketing a more elaborate take-back program in a couple of states.
A FINANCIAL INCENTIVE: If the idea of getting a store credit for your old, unwanted gizmos appeals, look into Radio Shack's new online trade-in program.
From my scoping of the site, it appears that the deal works only with products of fairly recent vintage - MP3 music players, digital cameras, (smaller) video camcorders, mobile phones, laptop computers (not PCs!), GPS systems, car stereos, video game consoles and game media. Accepted brands include Apple, Alpine, Archos, Creative, Dell, iRiver, JVC, Kenwood, Microsoft, Nintendo, Philips, Pioneer, RCA, Samsung, SanDisk, Sony and Toshiba.
But forget those heavy TVs or a/v receivers, thank you!
When you log onto the trading site (Google "RadioShack On-line Trade-In Program" to find it), you'll be asked if the product still works, whether you have its accessories and what its condition is. You'll then be given a price quote.
If you accept, print out a pre-paid shipping label to send the gear back to Radio Shack. Within two weeks, if the item lives up to your status report, you'll get a Radio Shack gift card.
Some of the price quotes I got seemed insanely low - like $15.65 for an LG mobile phone in excellent condition. But estimates for a well-maintained Canon SD300 digital camera and older iPod Nano seemed decent ($55 to $60 each), enough to make me consider dusting them off and sending them in for store credit.
And my Radio Shack contact assured me that functional products would likely find new homes, not end up in the trash.
Source: Jonathan Takiff, Philadelphia Daily News