When a consensus for a national policy is lacking on some item of importance, don't be surprised if a not-for-profit entity steps up to fill the void.
Case in point Goodwill Industries International Inc., an association of nonprofits based in Rockville, Md., which is beginning to play a pervasive nationwide role in the collection arrangements for defunct computers and televisions. Sometimes it works with state governments, sometimes with manufacturers.
Goodwill's clout is tempered by a decentralized structure. The Maryland headquarters acts as coordinator for more than 100 regional job-training organizations in the United States that generate revenue by selling donated goods and from contracting with businesses and government. But Goodwill's electronics recycling statistics are impressive.
A policy group called the Northwest Product Stewardship Council recently published a preliminary analysis of e-cycle programs in Oregon and Washington, two states that have laws requiring manufacturer-funded recycling of computers and televisions. The report's final pages list each state's drop-off sites. The Oregon roster is 44-percent Goodwill—partly Goodwill's own stores, partly commercial retailers loosely linked to Goodwill as "donation stations"—while the drop-off roster in Washington is 38-percent Goodwill. Coordinating the latter state's mandatory program is the Washington Materials Management and Financing Authority, run by manufacturers. The executive director, John Friedrick, was recruited from Goodwill Industries of Columbia
Moving outside the Pacific Northwest, Goodwill has more than 1,700 drop-off locations that are part of ReConnect, an electronics recycling program run by Goodwill and computer manufacturer Dell Inc., which accept equipment without charge, regardless of brand. Depending on the geographic area, Goodwill sometimes markets the equipment that reaches ReConnect in decent enough shape for resale after repair.
Yet another electronics recycling project utilizing Goodwill is a manufacturer consortium called Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Co. (MRM), set up by Panasonic Corp., Sharp Corp. and Toshiba Corp. When MRM first issued a nationwide site list in January 2009, Goodwill was a major MRM collector. Goodwill still plays that role in a few places—17 out of 61 MRM locations are in Illinois—but its involvement with the consortium has been fading, probably due to the deepening link with Dell.
And Goodwill has yet another card to play in the recycling arena involving nationwide garbage handler Waste Management Inc. A Waste Management subsidiary in California recently began diverting bulk pickup items, capable of resale, to Goodwill. Some of the items are electronic, but furniture and kitchen items also qualify.
Back in the Pacific Northwest, the preliminary analysis of the e-cycle programs in Oregon and Washington shows that Goodwill and other not-for-profits reap an important benefit from state-mandated recycling funded by manufacturers. "Charitable thrift organizations are now getting paid to collect the equipment rather than often having to pay out of pocket to recycle donated broken equipment," the report said.
The report, derived mostly from stakeholder interviews, provides a generally upbeat perspective on the two states' programs. Some of the most interesting nuggets in the 50-page document show up as brief sidelights.
An interviewee from the manufacturing sector pointed out a paradox in the Oregon/Washington approach that thwarts the statutes' stated goals of getting products redesigned for end-of-life convenience. To motivate changes in design, he said, state laws should opt for "independent producer responsibility" (IPR), a principle that manufacturers should accept recycling responsibility only for their own brand. A company doing that would reap direct rewards from making its gear easier to recycle. But state officials would go crazy trying to enforce a mandatory program on that basis, so instead manufacturers are directed to take responsibility for a particular quantity of discarded electronics, scaled to the company's market importance but without segregating equipment by brand. But the iconoclastic interviewee insists that the "design outcomes suggested by both legislatures can only be achieved through IPR."
Another useful sidelight in the Oregon/Washington report A footnote discloses a 2009 paper from Dell staffers—Survey of Electronic Recyclers Results and Analysis—that offers a wish list from processors who get paid by the company to disassemble and recycle discarded gear. What design improvements would they appreciate most? Ranking first was using uniform plastic resins in all components of a particular model. Next Don't insert metal pieces into plastics.
Another survey question disclosed the unpopularity among recyclers of polyvinyl chloride as an insulation for wires, which they rated as among the least recyclable of plastics. The paper's authors commented that Dell is moving toward using thermoplastic elastomers and thermoplastic polyurethanes instead, but the hurdles to such a switch haven't all been solved yet. The plastics categories voted easiest to recycle in Dell's survey? High-impact polystyrene and certain types of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene.
The recyclers also expressed the hope of getting better data on the equipment they are processing, mentioning bills of materials and labeling of parts.