Betty Patton is an environmental consultant with Environmental Practices, LLC, in Portland, Ore., specializing in solid waste, recycling, and waste prevention. She is also the special projects chair on the board of the Association of Oregon Recyclers.

Tuesday, 4 Sep 2001

PORTLAND, Ore.

A three-day weekend makes for a four-day workweek. It sounds nice, but I have more than five days of work to cram into that space. Luckily, I love my work. This week I’ll be doing half paid work and half volunteer, all working toward the same end: waste prevention.

I am a consultant, and my latest project involvement is the Western Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (WEPSI). The organizers of this initiative are representatives from federal, state, and local agencies in eight western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. This project has convened a group of people, representing a variety of perspectives, to discuss the problems and possible solutions for our discarded electronics. My motivation for getting involved with this: An estimated 700,000 new PCs and laptops will be sold in my state alone this year. We already have over a million PCs and 200,000 laptops here in Oregon, and half a million of them will be disposed of this year, with most of those going to landfills. That is 10,000 tons in this small state, and that tonnage includes heavy metals, plastics, and lead. Needless to say, those kinds of numbers got my attention.

So did the idea of product stewardship. This is a fairly new concept in the solid waste management business. Designers and manufacturers invent, create, and market products and materials based on their functionality. Consumers buy these things based on need or want. We discard the remnants of those purchases, and our local governments are responsible for providing the waste collection service and managing and regulating that waste stream. The process of product stewardship allows all of the entities involved in the creation, use, and end-of-life activities to share in the responsibility of waste management. The goal of WEPSI is to encourage design for the environment, to educate users on the benefits of long-lasting, durable products, and to work with nonprofits, schools, recyclers, waste haulers, and local governments to provide the highest possible reuse and recycling opportunities for our discarded electronic equipment.

My afternoon will be spent meeting with some of the people involved in this long-term project. This group has its work cut out for it. Design and manufacture of electronics involves large, multinational corporations. Recycling is usually a very local or regional activity. So this discussion process has to be both global and local. Not an easy task, but an exciting one. We have spent many months planning it with a dedicated steering committee. We have just begun the full discussion with the industry folks, the recyclers, the nonprofits that try to reuse equipment, and the hazardous-material handlers that have to deal with some of the parts. Cross your fingers for a productive process.

Maybe I am interested in this project for my own personal gain. We have four computers in this household/office and enough parts in the basement to build a zillion more. A bearing went out on my CPU fan yesterday. Out of the five fans we had in storage, none of them were compatible with my brand of CPU, so we’ve got to go to our favorite electronics store for a replacement. If everybody’s basement is like ours, we’ve got a material-handling problem on our hands bigger than I can imagine!

In the past, the definition of a durable product was one that had an expected useful lifespan of three years. Computers are approaching a two-year lifespan. On the bright side, I am able to add and replace individual parts as I need them. On the downside, I need to do this more often. Design, marketing, consumption, and disposal are all being addressed in the WEPSI process. There aren’t any easy solutions, but we’re working together to find some.