How green are your gadgets?

July 27, 2010

A Blackberry mobile device, made by Research in Motion (RIM), is seen on a shelf in Toronto, July 13, 2010. The company will hold its annual general meeting of shareholders today. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

This article by Teri Schultz originally appeared in GlobalPost.

Do you know how much of your beloved BlackBerry can be absorbed back into nature? Have you envisioned the end-of-life plan for your precious new iPad? Considered cradle-to-cradle care for your webcam?

High-tech entrepreneurs Marc Aelbrecht, Jean-Pierre D’Haese and Xavier Petre are betting that if you haven’t factored these questions into your purchasing choices yet, you soon will — and you’ll go looking for companies like theirs.

The three Belgians are the brains and consciences behind United Pepper, the first electronics producer in the world to receive certification for “fair trade,” signifying the sustainability of its production process and good working conditions in its manufacturing facilities in Vietnam.

Equally important to the company are its products’ biodegradability and recyclability. United Pepper makes a webcam so green it’s been known to sprout on occasion. The octopus-shaped Lili is filled with a fiber similar to cotton called kapok and sand from the Mekong River, and if it is kept too long in a damp environment, kapok seeds may send forth little tendrils through Lili’s cotton sheath.

It all comes as part of a focus on the complete lifecycle of electronics that the United Pepper trio  believes consumers must heed.

“We know these values will become the norm over time,” D’Haese said in an interview at the company’s sparse Brussels office. “We are very convinced — very convinced — that this will be a major evolution in the future.”

If that evolution doesn’t happen by consumer choice, it may be forced by legislation.

The European Union, which the United Nations estimates produces 8.7 million tons of e-waste per year, already has the strictest electronics recycling and disposal regulations in the world enshrined in its directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE ), but it is poorly enforced.

Last month a report prepared by the European Parliament as it seeks to reform the directive showed some EU countries have not even implemented one percent of the existing regulations.

Karl-Heinz Florenz, the German lawmaker who prepared the report, summed up EU-wide compliance as “absolutely appalling.”

While the majority — an estimated 65 percent — of electrical and electronic items sold in the bloc are turned in by consumers to their local collection sites, where it is sorted and prepared for dismantlemement and recycling, things go downhill from there — or, more literally, downstream — as the European Parliament report shows more than half of the collected waste “leaks to improper treatment and illegal exports.

It’s against EU law, for example, to ship off non-working appliances or electronics. Amid scandals of toxic European waste being dumped illegally on third-world countries, European leaders are currently in the process of tightening the WEEE laws even further and pledging better enforcement.

According to a draft text adopted by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, which will go to a full vote in September, the percentage of e-waste that member states would be required to collect would change from being measured as four kilograms per inhabitant to 85 percent of the amount of waste produced by the country.

The European Commission’s version of the revision, which must be reconciled with the parliament’s, quantifies the collection requirement as 65 percent of the waste produced by weight. In addition, member governments would have to verify that they treat all the e-waste they collect in-country, theoretically heading off some of the illegal shipments to developing nations.

European consumers already have dedicated facilities where they can dispose of their unwanted electronics, and retailers also are required to take back items that are brought to them after they wear out.

But, citing a relatively low level of participation in this scheme — people don’t seem to want to make a trip to the “containerpark” just to get rid of an MP3 player — the commission wants producers to accept more responsibility, which also means more costs.

This would conceivably ensure more compliance, and also make it more feasible to recover any valuable — or hazardous — substances from the electronics and let whatever is possible go back into nature, an example of a “cradle-to-cradle” approach.

The European Committee of Domestic Equipment Manufacturers (CECED), which represents the European household appliances industry, feels the commission’s version puts too much responsibility on producers.

While manufacturers will remain committed to accepting returned electronics, the EU insists that member states take on the primary responsibility for collection and for reaching the required percentage of produced waste. The parliamentary draft supports this position.

The new legislation would also require more action in the design stages of electronic items, calling for new requirements to be put in place governing easier re-use, dismantling and recovery.

United Pepper’s products already incorporate these principles by having the tiniest possible electronics enclosed in eco-friendly wrappings that create the smallest possible “footprint” in their manufacturing. The webcam, Lili, can be disposed of by just pulling out the lens and minimal internal components, detaching the cable and letting the cotton and kapok compost.

Oscar, a USB hub, is even more biodegradable, similarly made of kapok, cotton, Mekong sand, cardboard and glue with no need for a cord, while a new webcam, Cube, is made of biodegradable wood — and Xavier Petre assures that trees are planted to replace those which are used.

“When you put 50 euros on the table to buy a webcam, you should know who is behind it and you should know what kind of material is used,” Petre said.

“It’s not as green as we want,” he acknowledged, citing the lens and cable which are not yet able to be made of biodegradable substances, “but we are able to move in the right direction.”

A few months ahead of the iPad rage, United Pepper also released a tablet PC. It’s selling well, capitalizing on the craze for the Apple product, but more attractive to customers who prioritize the green commitment of its manufacturers. (Apple ranked just below average among the major producers in Greenpeace’s May 2010 Guide to Greener Electronics, and then there are the horrific Foxconn suicides).

Later this year, United Pepper hopes to be able to replace the tablet’s metal shell with one made from a composite of rice husks and as soon as technically possible, to create a 100 percent biodegradable tablet.

The company states its goal as “to help make the world a better place, a place where corporate social responsibility and environmental engagement are on the top of everyone’s agenda.”

Yet Marc Aelbrecht refutes the suggestion that’s a rather utopian aim. “An idealist, in my mind, is someone who strives for something which is hardly reachable,” he said. “But this, this is possible. We can do this.”

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Photo shows a Blackberry mobile device, made by Research in Motion (RIM), on a shelf in Toronto, July 13, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

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