Sony Fights the Dark Side of E-Waste

Posted by: Kenji Hall on August 17, 2007

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It’s a common eyesore in many homes: a jumbled mass of old PCs, monitors, MP3 players, cell phones and connecting wires clogging our closets or file drawers. How often have we told ourselves that we’ll find a proper burial for the antiquated gadgetry only to procrastinate and give the pile a chance to swell? (For the record: Mine includes an old Mac Classic from college.)

Anyone who has tried to tackle the pile, knows what a pain it can be to find a recycler for all the e-junk. Having the gadgetry safely disassembled and recycled usually isn’t free, and if some electronics makers win political support for an advanced recycling fee (ARF), consumers would be saddled with part of the disposal costs.

Which is why Sony should be applauded for its announcement today about a new e-waste initiative. The company now says it’s funding a program to recycle any Sony product, free of charge, at 75 sites run by Waste Management Recycle America eCycling drop-off centers in the U.S. Its gadget recycling begins on Sept. 15, and a year later, Sony expects to have doubled the number of sites, with at least one in each state. Consumers who aren’t within a short drive of one of these facilities can simply ship their old Sony products to select sites. (Non-Sony gizmos will be accepted, too, for a fee.)

That’s a welcome change for Sony, which had been slammed by Greenpeace and other environmental groups for supporting the ARF. It’s also good news because old, unwanted electronics aren’t about to disappear anytime soon. Consider these disturbing stats: A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study estimates the amount of throw-away electronics at between 1.9 million and 2.2 million tons in 2005. Most of it ended up in landfill; only 345,000 to 379,000 tons—less than 20%—was recycled. Since old consumer electronics are filled with toxic substances, such as mercury, cadmium, lead and brominated flame retardants in plastics, there’s a chance that the poisons could contaminate the soil and underground aquifers.

There's been no consensus on how to deal with our e-waste. In the U.S., every state has its own approach. For instance, California favors the ARF, while Maine charges electronics manufacturers so it can fund a state-backed recycling program.

Until now, Sony's policy has been piecemeal. The company already lets consumers leave their old VAIO computers as well as non-Sony brands of PCs, video cameras and other digital cameras at any of its 55 Sony stores and outlets in the U.S.; it bears the cost of recycling rechargeable batteries at nationwide chains such as Radio Shack and Home Depot; and it has a TV recycling program in Minnesota. As an incentive, it even offers credit for new Sony products through a trade-in Web site.

I don't know offhand what percentage of Sony products worldwide the company's new U.S. take-back program will account for. But it's hardly everything. Sony deserves credit for taking action on an issue that has divided the public sector but the company has to do more to prevent many of these gadgets from getting shipped off to countries where recyclers can make money off the parts. It makes economic sense--but this isn't just about money.

While organizations such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, in Calif., have lobbied governments to stop exporting e-waste, the problem persists. According to the SVTC, much of the exports go to China, Pakistan, India, Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria. Ideally, Sony will extend this program to every nation where it sells its products, and others will follow suit.

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