When it comes to the impact of electronics on the planet, we have to tread carefully. We love strong regulations behind e-waste and e-cycling, designs that focus on cradle-to-cradle, manufacturers making drastic improvements on efficiency of energy consumption, embodied energy, manufacturing waste and so on. But there's also this thing called business, and manufacturers like a market that is allowed to play itself out, trusting the consumers and the companies involved to do the sustainable thing. But can we do that? CEA seems to think so. To find out more about CEA's stance on the environment and to get their take on their lawsuit against the NYC electronics recycling law, and their feelings on the new California television efficiency regulations, I met with Parket Brugge, Vice President of Environmental Affairs and Industry Sustainability of the Consumer Electronics Association. Brugge was very generous with his time and sat with me to discuss these big topics.
Brugge makes some valid points and helps clarify CEA's stance on these important issues.
When it comes to the NYC recycling law that requires manufacturers to provide door-to-door pickup, it is indeed an expensive proposition. However, could it drastically improve the recycling rate of electronics? We have no idea yet. And if it does, then is the expense well worth it when looking at the bigger picture of the health of the planet? It requires manufacturers to take on more responsibility than consumers, perhaps, for doing the right thing, but could it be the more realistic solution for e-waste?
Brugge told me earlier off camera that the NYC sanitation department said it would be able to handle collection of electronics and sorting at waste facilities, but that NYC didn't wish to pursue that route - the city currently will pick up appliances but not electronics. But NYC wants manufacturers to take on the expense of electronics recycling.
Once concern surrounding this that comes to mind is if manufacturers are strapped with increased costs of collecting old devices, could they be more likely to ship it to e-waste dumps to save money, rather than recycling it all responsibly?
There are many questions to be sorted out, and the lawsuit will be an interesting one to follow.
As for the industry's stance on the California energy efficiency standards, CEA feels that manufacturers are already doing their best to be more energy efficient. Yet, Martin LaMonica of CNET stated in a panel earlier in the day that somewhere around 70-80% of the televisions on the market meet Energy Star standards and the vast majority will stay on store shelves. (This is what Brugge is referring to in the interview when he said he felt this was incorrect information.) LaMonica and David Katzmaier, CNET editor and expert on TV energy efficiency, pointed out that so many TVs have Energy Star ratings that consumers can hardly use it as a way to choose the most energy efficient television. That says a lot about needing stronger requirements, which California is now putting in place, and other states may or may not follow.
Panasonic has a display showing the energy efficiency improvements of one television model from 2009 to 2010 - it's a 40% improvement. It seems the manufacturers are perfectly capable of meeting more stringent standards. Brugge points out that this could limit potential useful technology in the future. But...could it? Or could it simply force better technology in the future? Brugge didn't give an example, but I think the most relevant one is 3D TV. It's the big thing in televisions right now, but as Douglas Johnson, Senior Director of Technology Policy and International Affairs with CEA stated earlier in the day, 3D TVs consume about 20-30% more energy than 2D TVs. It's likely that this is exactly what manufacturers are worried won't make it to store shelves in California with the new regulations. Again - it's not that consumers can't buy less energy efficient TVs, it's just that they won't find them on shelves in physical stores in California.
If the industry is willing to comply with voluntary standards - that have become nearly meaningless, but will tighten up when Energy Star 5.0 requirements come out in 2012 - and is already doing a lot to improve efficiency, then why can it not comply with state-implemented requirements intended to reduce the electricity demand for that state? Again, this is shady ground and there's plenty of room for debate, but reducing energy demand, in the big scheme of things, seems more important than the comfort of electronics manufacturers.
While companies like Panasonic are turning out 2010 TV models that are 40% more efficient than 2009 models, with companies like Nokia striving to phase out toxic materials and carefully track their supply chain, and with companies like Dell making recycling a really big deal, it might be easy to think that the industry will indeed work out what's best. But as Jeff Omelchuck of EPEAT stated to me earlier in the day, consumers have to create a demand for these greener products in order for manufacturers to have a reason to provide them, but if the consumers don't know that they can demand them (or what it even means to them and the planet to demand them), then what will make the manufacturers improve, other than regulations?
It's quite a big topic to chew on.
One last nit pick note: Brugge stated to me at the end of the interview that CES works to be tempered in what they're doing, and don't wish to greenwash, since greenwash leads to a loss of credibility. He said that following that, CES isn't striving to be the greenest conference ever. "We're not holding out as the most environmentally friendly show you'll ever go to." But.... yeah they are - or at least, their website says so:
Just sayin'... This simply underscores that the environment is important to CEA, and they like to talk about it, but it's not necessarily the constant center of their thinking or decision making.
But, he also stated, "Sustainability is a journey, not a destination." Now that is something we can all readily agree upon.
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