*NEWS*SO WHERE DOES E-WASTE GO?
*NEWS*SO WHERE DOES E-WASTE GO?
2005-02-27 at 9:31:00 am #10557
SO WHERE DOES THE E-WASTE GO?
Where should it go? Despite electronics’ toxic contents, the U.S. —
unlike a half-dozen or more other countries — has no national legislation
regulating e-waste disposal and no national system for electronics recycling.
The EPA considers discarded electronics hazardous waste. But unless your state
or local government bans specific electronic components (such as CRTs) or the
materials they contain — and unless you’re dumping over 220 pounds of e-waste a
month (a federal violation) — it’s perfectly legal to toss it with the rest of
your trash. Curbside recycling bins are given the once-over before being pitched
into the truck, but no one picks through your trash on its way to the dump.
Consumer education and conscience are often the only safeguards against putting
small quantities of hazardous waste into the bin.
If I’d dumped my old
laptop in the trash, it would have been eventually trucked out to a landfill in
eastern Oregon. If I took an old Macintosh out of my closet today and shipped it
to the manufacturer’s designated recycler, it would end up in a shredder in
California. But first it would be dismantled, assuming the equipment cannot be
reused or refurbished as is. The recycler separates certain components —
batteries, CRTs, mercury elements, and some plastics — for special handling and
hazardous materials recovery. The remainder, including circuit boards, is
shredded, and later melted and smelted to extract the valuable metals, primarily
copper and gold, for resale and reuse.
However, the way
electronics are designed makes their disassembly and materials recycling
cumbersome and expensive. This is especially true of older, obsolete equipment
now making its way into the waste stream. So despite laws intended to prevent
the export of hazardous waste, there’s a good chance that had I deposited my
computer in a used electronics collection facility, it might have been loaded
onto a ship bound for China, following what Jim Puckett of the Basel Action
Network calls “the economic path of least resistance.”
A woman squats
over an open flame in a backyard workshop. In the pan she holds over the fire, a
plastic and metal circuit board begins to melt into a smoky, noxious stew. With
bare hands she plucks out the chips. Another woman wields a hammer and cracks
the back of an old monitor to remove the copper yoke. The lead-laden glass is
tossed onto a riverside pile. Nearby, a man wearing no protective clothing
sluices a pan of acid over a pile of computer chips, releasing a puff of steam.
When the chemical vapor clears, a small fleck of gold will emerge. Another
worker crouches over a pile of broken ink cartridges, brushing the carbon black
out by hand. A child stands on a pile of smashed electronics, eating an apple.
At night, thick black dioxin-laden smoke rises from a mountain of burning wires,
whose plastic insulation melts to expose the valuable copper within.
images of Guiyu, a southern Chinese city, are from a film called Exporting
Harm, produced by BAN and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group
that’s been watchdogging the computer industry for more than twenty years.
Released in 2002, the film shows the city filled with enormous mounds of trashed
electronics piled in open heaps: computer parts of all sorts, monitors,
keyboards, wires, printers, cartridges, fax machines, and circuit boards — all
imported from throughout the developed world for inexpensive, labor-intensive
recycling. The city’s water has been rendered undrinkable, the soil poisoned,
and its river polluted with heavy concentrations of dioxins, as well as lead,
barium, chromium, and other heavy metals.
Jim Puckett calls this
e-waste the “effluent of the affluent.” According to Exporting Harm’s
estimates for early 2002, some 50 to 80 percent of the electronics collected for
recycling in the western half of the United States were being exported for cheap
dismantling overseas, predominantly in China and Southeast Asia. The film’s
footage, which includes pictures of equipment I.D. tags reading “Property of the
City of Los Angeles” and “State of California Medical Facility,” startled
officials from states around the country.
No one wants to see
their state’s name on equipment handled by workers who might earn two dollars a
day toiling under hazardous conditions, or to risk the liabilities of improper
toxic-waste disposal. Consequently, the past few years have seen a flurry of
state e-waste regulation bills. In 2003 alone, more than fifty bills were
introduced in more than two dozen states. Meanwhile, in the absence of national
legislation, a group of electronics manufacturers, government agencies, and
nongovernmental organizations is negotiating the National Product Stewardship
Initiative, which would create a nationwide policy for dealing with used and
For now, a patchwork of
different programs addresses e-waste. Some states have banned CRTs from
landfills. Others will bar specific hazardous substances from products sold in
the state. Some have initiated recycling programs — both ongoing and one-day
collection events. Others have created task forces to recommend further action.
Meanwhile, electronics manufacturers are carrying on with existing voluntary
take-back schemes and developing new ones.
recently passed electronics recycling bill, collections will begin with a fee
based on screen size. Iowa began its electronics recycling program with one-day
collection events that charged five dollars per item. Over 275 Massachusetts
cities and towns now collect electronics for recycling — many at curbside. And
community websites often announce upcoming collection events. But that nifty new
PC or PDA does not yet come with end-of-life instructions.
– corporations, governments, schools, hospitals — are now returning most used
equipment to manufacturers. But none of the take-back programs up and running
has the capacity to capture the vast amount of e-waste generated by households
and small businesses, over 90 percent of which is currently not
Electronic waste — indeed, all trash and recycling in the U.S. — is
regulated and financed by local governments and taxpayers. But e-waste is
expensive to handle and piling up fast. According to research by a coalition of
U.S. nonprofit groups, the cost of collecting and processing this waste from
2006 to 2015 — not counting cleanup of contamination from improperly managed
e-waste — will exceed ten billion dollars.
Because of these costs,
consumer groups, environmental advocates, and local governments have begun to
question a basic assumption about handling the waste. “All the parts of a
product’s lifecycle that involve making money, being profitable, are considered
the realm of the private sector,” says Sego Jackson, solid-waste planner for
Snohomish County, Washington. “But as soon as that product has lost its value,
it crosses some magic line where it becomes the government’s responsibility.
Clearly we need a different kind of system.”
In the U.S., that need
has spawned the Computer Take Back Campaign, an effort to further involve
manufacturers in the recycling of electronics. Launched in 2001 by a coalition
of nonprofits that includes the GrassRoots Recycling Network and Silicon Valley
Toxics Coalition, the campaign is helping communities craft legislation to
control the hazards of e-waste, and is working with manufacturers and retailers
on collection events. “Our biggest allies in this campaign are local
governments,” says David Wood, executive director of the GrassRoots Recycling
High-tech electronics are resource-intensive to produce, lose value
quickly, and are expensive to dispose of — a “dysfunctional” cycle, according
to Sego Jackson. He has his own test for what would be functional: “It should be
as easy to recycle a computer as it is to buy one.” But reaching that goal will
require “a fundamental paradigm shift,” says Jim Puckett. At the heart of this
shift is the idea that end-of-product-life costs and responsibilities —
traditionally borne by consumers, taxpayers, government, and the environment —
should be shouldered by the manufacturer.
This concept, known as
Extended Producer Responsibility, is new to Americans but in use across Europe,
where it will soon be applied to electronics. The European Union recently passed
legislation requiring electronics manufacturers to take back and facilitate the
recycling of used products, in a system financed by “advanced recovery” fees
attached to the price of new equipment. If revenues from the fees fail to cover
the recycling costs, producers have to absorb the difference. The system
provides an incentive to design products for easier, cheaper recycling. A
companion piece of legislation will require manufacturers to eliminate some
hazardous substances from new equipment.
Because Europe is a
significant market for consumer electronics, U.S. companies, including Dell, HP,
and IBM, will be making products to meet EU requirements. And given the
industry’s global manufacturing and distribution efficiencies, those products
will be sold worldwide.
To meet the EU
regulations, engineers are rushing to find alternatives to lead solder now used
in computers, and to eliminate certain flame retardants. And as companies fall
under growing pressure to conserve resources and reduce toxics, they are moving
away from piecemeal elimination of undesirables and toward redesign. Mercury,
for example, is highly toxic and expensive to dispose of. As HP environmental
product steward Nathan Moin explains, the company could rework the current
design of flat panel display screens to make it easier to remove the mercury
lamp now used. But it will be more efficient to design a new lighting device
that eliminates mercury altogether. This is an example of what architect William
McDonough, coauthor of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,
describes as going beyond the “less bad approach” of reducing and eliminating
individual toxics, to addressing the problem holistically.
IMAGINE WHAT IT would be like if
upgrading software meant not having to buy a whole new computer, but simply
snapping in a new processor. Or if printers and other accessories were
universally compatible. Imagine if the price of a new laptop or mobile phone
covered the cost of a convenient system to collect old equipment for reuse or
recycling. Imagine if that price guaranteed a living wage in safe conditions to
those engaged in every step of electronics disassembly, materials recovery, and
manufacturing. Imagine if there were no such thing as garbage.
industry is one of the first that is being pushed to internalize its costs, a
move that will have fundamental implications for other industries as well. These
changes will not mean that the economy or high-tech innovation will come to a
screeching halt. There will still be commerce, education, entertainment,
electronic love letters, and wireless calls to far-flung friends and family, but
it won’t be business as usual.
old printer, laptop, cell phone, and Zip drive are still in the closet, even
though I now know where they should go. As for my old Macintosh 5300C, I believe
it ended its useful life in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a
neighborhood where I once recycled an old TV by taking it down to the street,
where it was immediately carted off by a passer-by who said, “Hey, can I have