Green Scene

Jess Vogt

They’re really gonna get us in trouble someday. Before we know it, we’ll find ourselves buried not in our own you-know-what, but in all our old computers, cell phones, televisions – all those electronics that we constantly must have the newest, brightest and best of.
Globally, electronics account for almost two percent of the waste stream, which amounts to over 2.5 million tons of waste annually! However, it is possible to recycle electronics, to recover the materials inside and reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills, although currently only 15-18 percent of e-waste is recycled. Recycling e-waste, or “e-cycling”, is becoming a more common practice both in and out of the United States. E-cycling not only prevents harmful compounds from entering our environment but also saves energy and resources. According to the EPA’s “Plug-In To eCycling” program, “Recycling one million desktop computers prevents the release of greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of over 17,000 passenger cars.” Recovering the metals inside, such as lead, cadmium, chromium, nickel and mercury, can be profitable as well as save these materials from being released into the environment.
However, here’s the giant, frying-pan-to-the-head caveat: e-cycling is not nationally regulated except under hazardous materials law, so most e-waste is incinerated or ends up in landfills, releasing the heavy metals inside these electronics into the environment as well as contributing substantially to greenhouse gas emissions. Collectors often export e-waste from the U.S. to developing countries in Africa and Asia because they can make money exporting, whereas it is costly to dismantle and dispose of e-waste properly inside the U.S. According to the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, the lead solder used in electronics circuit boards recovered from e-waste that is melted down in China can end up back in children’s toys and jewelry exported to the U.S. and other countries.
Except for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates the disposal and recovery of so-called “hazardous wastes” from “cradle to grave,” the United States does not have any national laws or regulations regarding electronics disposal or export. Instead, electronics recycling is “regulated” by voluntary disposal guidelines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has two documents, “Guidelines for Materials Management” and “Responsible Recycling (R2) Practices for Use in Accredited Certification Programs,” providing recommendations for environmentally and socially responsible disposal of e-waste.
These voluntary disposal guidelines for companies looking to dispose of electronics encourage reuse, refurbishment and recycling of electronics over disposal or incineration and promote finding disposal facilities that 1) reduce harmful exposure and emissions during disposal process, 2) comply with environmental, health, safety and legal standards and requirements, 3) ensure that end locations for recycled goods is not energy recovery, incineration or landfill disposal and 4) provide complete documentation for disposal procedures.
The only source of e-waste disposal regulation inside the United States are the states themselves; laws of various strength and merit have been passed in 19 states if you include New York City’s 2008 law, most since 2007. And, unfortunately, most electronics manufacturers are only beginning to institute electronics equipment “take back” programs in those states with laws. For instance, Panasonic, Toshiba and Sharp have banded together to form a sort of e-cycling collective called the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, LLC. But this program is currently focused on Minnesota because of that state’s new electronics recycling law. Effectively, if there is no law in your state, there is unlikely to be an easily accessible electronics-recycling program.
But there are efforts to remedy this. With the switch to digital TV June 12, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition has started a “Take Back My TV” campaign to lobby television manufacturers to take back their old TVs as consumers buy new ones. They have made an aggressive case against sending all the cathode-ray tube television sets to landfills, arguing that the amount of toxic chemicals, such as lead (up to 8 lbs per TV!), cadmium and beryllium, are dangerous when exposed to humans.
According to the TakeBack Web site, under such aggressive page titles as “How the Digital TV Conversion Deadline Is Creating An E-Waste Tsunami,” these chemicals will either be dumped into American landfills or recycled. But when recycled – which about 15 percent of e-waste is – much of this waste is sent to Asia, and then merely gets buried there, or even worse, ends up in the air and water. If TV manufacturers were more responsible for the mess they have created with all these TVs and adhered to a sense of “extended producer responsibility,” they’d take back and properly dismantle, recycle or dispose of all these TVs.
And unless they do, I have a feeling Americans will just keep stockpiling all those old TVs in their basements, attics and garages.Sources: EPA’s Plug-In to eCycling Web site; Electronics TakeBack Coalition; Wisconsin DNR; National Electronics Recycling Infrastructure Clearinghouse