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Will Wal-Mart Take the Lead on E-Waste?

June 15, 2012

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - A year ago, national grassroots pressure began to get Walmart to recycle hazardous electronic waste. Earlier this month, executives at Walmart's annual shareholders' meeting were greeted by a half-page "open letter" signed by more than 100 faith leaders from all 50 states and urging the nation's leading retailer to provide consumers with an easy way to drop off e-waste.

Joan Brown, executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, signed that letter and went to the shareholders' meeting. She says many people of faith are uncomfortable about what happens to electronic waste, but often have few options - especially in states such as New Mexico which have vast rural areas.

"In the rural areas, that's the only place they have to shop - and many of them want to make moral decisions. I know that they would want Walmart to do the right thing in moving even deeper into sustainability."

Brown is hopeful that Walmart is listening. She says the company could move sustainability to an entirely new level, one in which it influences other companies, so what is waste can become something recyclable.

A shift in the handling of e-waste can make major changes, Brown says, even beyond U.S. borders.

"It affects the earth and our brothers and sisters in other countries and those living in poorer areas where they don't have a place to put electronics that are old. And so they go in areas that could affect the water adversely."

Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, thinks Walmart may be starting to listen, and she's hoping Congress will prohibit e-waste from being shipped to dumps in developing countries. Better yet, she says, would be to intercept discarded televisions and computers before they join the waste stream.

"Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in America, and it's also very toxic. We need to keep these materials out of our landfills and responsibly recycled."

Schneider says Wal-Mart has a unique responsibility because of its commanding presence in the United States. She points out that urban residents can drop off their used products at locations such as Best Buy and Office Depot, which already have free electronic take-back programs. She says Walmart could also help persuade manufacturers to design products in more environmentally friendly ways.

The letter is online at texasenvironment.org.

Renee Blake/Beth Blakeman, Public News Service - NM