US: Sony Corporation Tracks Environmental Organizations

One of the world's largest electronics manufacturer is tracking the detailed activities of environmental organisations seeking to regulate high-tech industries.

A leaked document written by Sony Corporation, obtained by IPS,
outlines a presentation made in July to fellow electronics companies at a conference in Brussels illustrating the various activities of environmental groups. It names specific US activists who seek to regulate waste caused by the electronics industry.

The presentation describes the various campaigns of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the European Environment Bureau, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and the Northern Alliance for Sustainability. It then suggests that a counter-strategy by the industry would be discussed at the meeting.

Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an advocacy group based in California's high-tech hub, told IPS he was startled to discover that the Japanese-based company was discussing his group's activities.

''It seems that industry has spent an inordinate amount of time fighting the tide instead of doing what they need to do to clean up the industry,'' he says.

Mark Small, vice president of environment and health and safety issues with Sony in the United States, acknowledged that Sony was tracking environmental groups.

''We are obviously concerned about our image and we want to make sure that if Greenpeace is pushing something we want to be on top of it,'' says Small, who is based in San Diego, California.

He admits that the presentation was not put together in the ''most tasteful'' way but explains that it was not meant for public release.

Electronics industries, including 54-year-old Sony, have been fighting efforts by environmentalists and the European Union which would legally force manufacturers to be responsible for their products and the environmental or health damage they could cause.

In Europe these efforts have culminated in what is known as the European Commission Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (or WEEE). The premise of the regulation is that the producer of all electronic products and electrical equipment must be financially responsible for managing their products throughout their lifecycle, including when the product is no longer useful and thrown away.

''The public should not have to pay extra taxes for waste management costs of hazardous materials that producers choose to use in electrical and electronic equipment,'' says Smith.

The directive also includes a phase-out by 2008 on mercury, lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals commonly used in electronics.

Environmentalists in Europe began pushing the legislation as it became an increasing burden for local governments to deal with the amount of electronic waste generated by the booming expansion of the computer industry.

In general, computer equipment is a complicated assembly of more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic, including toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics and plastic additives.

Apart from the well-known substances like mercury and lead, the health impacts of many of these chemicals and the mixtures and material combinations in the products often are not known, warn environmental groups.

The production of semiconductors, printed circuit boards, disk drives and monitors involve particularly hazardous chemicals, and workers involved in chip manufacturing are now beginning to come forward and reporting cancer clusters, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

The organisation notes that by 2004, there will be an estimated 315 million obsolete computers in the United States. Since fewer than 10 percent of the high-tech machines are now recycled, most of them will be destined for landfills or incinerators, says Smith.

Small with Sony opposes regulations on the high-tech industry and argues companies are already undertaking voluntary efforts to better design products so that they cann be more easily recycled.

He says Sony is working with the state of Minnesota and some cities to develop recycling and ''take-back'' programmes for used electronic equipment, including stereos and television sets.

While a recent three pilot-study in Minnesota proved that collecting and recycling old televisions and computers was not currently cost effective, Small says Sony is willing to meet these costs as it works on manufacturing products to be more easily recyclable.

Part of the problem, he says, is not the new products, but older stereo equipment or televisions which contain parts that were never labelled in anticipation of being recycled.

''If we get this working in the United States we will show Europe and Japan that this is a working model that makes economic sense and will be more effective than regulation,'' says Small.

But activists campaigning for tighter controls on the toxics used in the industry say such voluntary efforts do not address the phase-out of toxic chemicals or if companies will accept responsibility for their products.

''The rest seems to be window dressing,'' says Smith, with Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

The electronics industry and the US Trade Representative have been actively campaigning against Europe's effort to adopt health and environmental safety laws regulating the industry.

Since the European legislation surfaced several years ago, the American Electronic Association (AEA) -- with 3,000 member companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, and Intel -- and the US Trade Representative launched a major offensive against the WEEE directive. They charge that the legislation violates the World Trade Organisation (WTO) because it imposes requirements
on foreign manufacturers.

Environmentalists and three US lawmakers have written to Vice President Al Gore, urging the presidential hopeful to intervene and put an immediate stop to the USTR's lobbying.

''We must level environmental standards up, not down,'' says a letter signed by more than 100 pressure groups. ''Trade Associations must not be allowed to dictate environmental health policy.''

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications
  • 183 Environment

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