A recent campaign by Greenpeace to draw attention to electronics waste that targeted Hewlett Packard as a major offender is being refuted by the manufacturer, which says it considers itself

an industry leader in addressing the problem.

As the electronics industry has grown so has e-waste, and the ever-shortening upgrade and replacement cycle has only exacerbated the problem. According to a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average computer lifespan has dropped from six years in 1997 to two years in 2005.

“It’s the largest amount of waste produced and dumped in landfills around the world,” said Zeina Al-Hajj, who is coordinating the e-waste campaign for Greenpeace International. “It’s also very toxic and hazardous, and it all seems to be ending up in Asia, where it is causing serious environmental and health problems.”

Al-Hajj said the problem is manufactures that are focused on production and marketing, without consideration for the toxicity of their products or where they end up.

“We want companies to change their design so their products don’t contain hazardous materials and don’t become waste in one or two years but can be upgraded and reused and when it does become waste, companies take responsibility for it,” says Al-Hajj.

Greenpeace has been working quietly on the issue for two years, securing commitments from Samsung, Sony, Sony Ericsson and Nokia to eliminate toxic flame-retardants and PVC plastic from some of their products

Al-Hajj said HP was targeted in the recent campaign — which included dumping a truckload of e-waste at HP’s Swiss headquarters in Geneva — because talks with HP failed to yield a similar commitment and scientific testing conducted for Greenpeace showed HP to be one of the worst offenders.

“HP’s Pavilion computer had the highest level of brominated flame retardant, one of the hazardous chemicals that is proven scientifically to cause harm for the workers who work in production and for recyclers who work in the scrap yards,” said Al-Hajj. “This is one of the hazardous chemicals we’re demanding companies eliminate.”

The public pressure led to a preliminary meeting between Greenpeace and HP, and Al-Hajj said negotiations and discussions are ongoing. Their goal is to secure a global commitment, down through HP’s supply chain, to be more environmentally friendly in its manufacturing and disposal practices.

“We don’t have a commitment yet, and we’ll keep watching their progress until they make one,” said Al-Hajj.

While they obviously disagree on HP’s role in the problem, both HP and Greenpeace share similar views on the problem of e-waste and what needs to be done to combat it. Frances Edmonds, manager of recycling, environmental health and safety for HP Canada, said HP has eliminated a whole range of substances from its products, including cadmium, arsenic, lead and a number of flame-retardants. Edmonds also said HP is a strong believer in extended producer responsibility.

“We believe very strongly there should be regulation in this area,” says Edmonds. “We’re actively working with government to look at e-waste and develop policy.”

She points to HP’s design for the environment program, which rests on three pillars: materials innovation, reducing hazardous content and making products lighter to ship; energy conservation, both during production and when in use; and designing for recycling.

Recognizing the issue 10 years ago Edmonds said HP partnered with Canada’s Noranda Recycling, committing to 100 per cent recycling of its products. Consumers can access HP’s suite of recycling services online, including free InkJet and LaserJet toner cartridge recycling. HP will also pick up its hardware or any hardware at your home or business for recycling, charging only a non-profit, cost-recovery fee.

 “We’ve offered this as a stop-gap measure until there are regulations which require all manufacturers to do this,” said Edmonds. “Because it’s so expensive to do properly it’s very important all manufacturers are required to take responsibility for their waste.”

A number of different models are being implemented and advocated. California consumers pay a visible recycling fee when they purchase electronics, while in Alberta the fee is built into the price.

While Edmonds said most of the industry favours the California model, HP prefers a system beginning next year in Maine that will see municipalities collecting waste and bringing it to a consolidation centre where it is sorted by manufacturer. A company like HP can either take its waste to recycle itself, or pay the state a fee to recycle its share.

“We take these issues very seriously and spend a lot of money, not only promoting these issues across the industry, but also doing the right thing with our waste,” said Edmonds. “We spend top dollar promoting a Cadillac solution for all of our waste and anything customers want to send to us as well.”

A recent report from Gartner Research said vendors are beginning to look more seriously at e-waste disposal as more jurisdictions introduce e-waste legislation. Estimating it costs US$30 to safely dispose of a PC, costs will be an issue and Gartner said a new industry is beginning to grow around this opportunity.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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