What Makes E-Waste So Important?
Although electronic waste is only a fraction of our total waste in the United States, two things make e-waste recycling it important: precious metals, and toxic materials. Ever wonder how we have gotten electronics so small? A lot of it has to do with precious metals like copper, gold, platinum, and all of those exotic rare-earth metals that most of us couldn’t find on a periodic table. All of those metals have various conductive properties that make them valuable to electronics makers. However, they are also very scarce which makes them difficult to source. In many cases, recovering those rare metals from a ton of old electronics is more productive than mining for the metals.
Another issue with electronic waste is hazardous materials. Some For example older TVs and computer monitors have a bunch of lead in the glass of the cathode ray tubes (CRTS). From a performance standpoint, that lead is great because it kept us from getting zapped by the electrons being shot out of the back of the picture tube and onto the screen. However, from a disposal standpoint all of those picture tubes being thrown away led to a lot of lead in the landfill. Similar issues were raised with the lead solder used to hold things onto a circuit board.
And those are just the more common hazardous materials. There is a laundry list of special chemicals used in various parts of computer and electronics. These chemicals are used for a variety of functions such as a fire retardant. All of those chemicals, when improperly disposed of, can cause severe health and environmental repercussions.
The good news is that there is a growing market to recycle electronic wastes. The bad news is that it can be very confusing, unevenly regulated, and fraught with issues. The big problem with electronics is that even though the total amount of precious metals and hazardous materials collectively in all of our e-waste is significant, the amount in each individual piece of electronic equipment is relatively small. As a result, the recycling is often done overseas where labor is cheaper and environmental regulations are not as strict. Reportedly, somewhere between 50% and 80% of America’s e-waste gets exported in good faith that they’ll be properly recycling them. The problem is that once out of sight and out of mind, we lose track of how these materials are processed. Unfortunately there have been some growing and very troubling issues. The Basel Action Network’s “Exporting Harm” documentary, released in 2002 illustrated the extensive damage some e-waste programs have caused in Asia. To recover the trace precious metals that a piece of e-waste contains, circuit boards are literally melted by the side of the road, the metals recovered, and the resulting toxic waste, left to flow freely into the ground or nearby waterway. Subsequent investigations found similar issues with some operations in Africa and Latin America.
So what should people do about it?
The first step is to be sure to recycle e-waste (e-cycle).
There is a growing movement to certify electronics recycling programs. Programs like E-stewards and R-2 provide certifications to help ensure that e-waste is being recycled in domestic facilities with proper pollution controls. There’s only one problem. Not all overseas e-waste recycling programs are horror stories. There are some that provide valuable economic development to parts of the world that need it the most. Certifications that ban all exports take down the legitimate operations as well as the problematic ones. One alternative is being offered by a group called WR3A. They are trying to implement a standard, kind of like “fair trade coffee” that uses contract language rather than regulation to help ensure that overseas exports are going to legitimate operations with adequate pollution control and social protections.
Another group, called EPEAT is working on the purchasing end to help make computers “greener” to begin with. Their standards help to ensure that equipment manufacturers are thinking about these things when they make the computers. EPEAT certifications help to ensure that computers have fewer hazardous components, that computers can be upgraded rather than replaced, and that they can be easily disassembled into components for more effective recycling.
Waste reduction options
You can do your part simply by trying to get just a little more life out of your electronics. Don’t panic. For those of you old enough to remember rabbit ears, “get a little more life out of it” might conjure up images of foil wrapped rabbit ears or antennas or your dad pounding atop the TV saying, “Oh, it’s fine, this TV’s got years left in it” despite the fact that it’s actually a radio. But seriously, with all of the electronic equipment out there getting even 3 months more out a device before selling or donating it can really add up. It may even prevent you some buyer’s remorse as there’s probably a bigger, better and yes, cheaper model unveiled within three months. If you are looking for an upgrade, you might also look at just replacing a couple components instead of your entire computer system. You might find that you get the upgraded performance you need with only a fraction of the waste.
Holding an eWaste drive is a great way to ensure it doesn’t end up landfilled. Consider coordinating such a drive and donating the electronics to Goodwill, a living embodiment of the reduce, reuse, recycle hierarchy. Many working items can be resold there, right at the store and thanks to their ReConnect partnership with Dell, they’re able to recycle non-working or obsolete items, creating jobs and diverting harmful e-waste from entering landfills in the process. It was easy, educational for fellow employees and kind of fun.
If you’re absolutely certain your electronics are ready to face their flickering grave, you have some options. Many municipalities have e-waste collection programs. Check with your local municipal recycling coordinator to see if programs are available in your city or town. In addition, most of the major manufacturers or retailers offer some sort f product take pack program. If you’re buying a new item, be sure to ask about their take back recycling program for your old items. You can also check out the Earth 911 website. It allows you to search for e-cycling options in your area via your zip code. Also, the EPA’s Plug-In To eCycling partners may offer a local avenue to recycle your woeful hardware.
E-cycling isn’t too all that much work once you know what resources are available to you. Clearly the practice of E-cycling still has room for improvement but when done right – it sure beats a landfill.
What are your experiences with e-waste or e-cycling?