E-Waste: The Global Impact

by Kurt Marko

Tech & Trends, General Information
Retrieved February 9, 2009
Go to Original Article

Short Product Life Spans & Increasing Sales Of PCs & Electronics Create Deluge Of E-Waste

Recycling is one of those concepts everyone embraces. Yet, when it comes to electronics—TVs, monitors, computers, and peripherals—why do so few of us actually do it? According to figures from the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), only about 13.6% of so-called e-waste was recycled in 2007, the rest being diverted to municipal landfills or storage. The rate is a significant improvement from the 10% recycled in 2000; however, it’s a far cry from the two-thirds of major appliances—things such as refrigerators and washing machines—that are diverted from the dump.

Thanks to local recycling programs, the overall volume of municipal waste is actually declining year-to-year; however, the amount of e-waste clogging landfills is increasing 8% annually. Recycling of IT consumables is even rarer. According to Brian Musil, senior storage acquisitions manager at RecycleYourMedia.com, a recent study found that only 3% of backup tapes are recycled, leaving about 10 million pounds a year of plastics and assorted metallic coatings in the trash.

Low recycling rates are compounded by our unrelenting consumption of a growing array of electronic devices. According to IDC estimates, more than 71 million computers were sold in the United States last year, with the worldwide total topping 300 million and expected to hit 425 million in 2012. That’s generating a lot of high-tech garbage—material much more toxic than the bottles and cans homeowners toss in their recycling bins.

Problems With Disposal

E-waste taken to a recycler sometimes ends up in a landfill, just not in this country. Some purported recycling firms are nothing more than collectors of high-tech garbage, using the cover of recycling to generate business and collect fees but then shipping the material to an overseas landfill.

According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, “a large portion of the hazardous electronic waste collected for recycling in the U.S. is actually exported to developing countries. There the products are dismantled and separated using such crude and toxic technologies that workers and communities are exposed to many highly toxic chemicals.” They point out that, “In countries like China, India, Vietnam, and Pakistan, workers in e-waste yards (working with few health and safety protections) actually ‘recycle’ very little of these products—they use hammers, acids, and open burning to reclaim some of the materials and burn the rest.” A November “60 Minutes” feature by Scott Pelley graphically documented how waste collected in the United States ends up smuggled via an arguably illegal underground sewer to the Far East, where it’s broken down for the precious metals and other salvageable components inside.

Some states, most notably California, have addressed the problem of unscrupulous scrap dealers by instituting fees on certain electronics products to fund programs that evaluate and register prospective recyclers. The EPA has proposed a similar certification standard, the R2 (Responsible Recycling) Practices, that outlines general principles and specific practices for recyclers disassembling or reclaiming used electronics equipment; however, unlike California’s program, R2 is purely voluntary and lacks the force of law.

The environmental activist group Basel Action Network claims that the R2 standards are anything but responsible when it comes to toxic materials. They contend that the standard does little to address the biggest problems in the electronics recycling industry: export of toxic e-waste to developing nations, the landfilling or incineration of e-waste domestically, and the regulation of health and safety conditions for recycling workers, particularly those in prison-based operations.

Given the lax state of recycler regulation, it can be difficult to find a reputable organization. However, organizations such as the Electronics TakeBack Coalition maintain online listings of firms who have signed their responsible recycler pledge (tinyurl.com/98ajce). In addition, Musil notes that firms specializing in media reuse, such as RecycleYourMedia.com (www.recycleyourmedia.com) or NSA (www.nsainc.net), typically perform the due diligence on their recycling partners to ensure unusable material is properly recycled.

Disposal Options

While users often focus on recycling and salvage, this is actually the tail end of the product life cycle. Many products can be resold or reused several times before ending up in the scrap heap. The EPA has developed a four-phase framework for modeling the electronic equipment life cycle. After a product is no longer useful to the original purchaser, phase two is to find it another productive home, via resale or donation to a nonprofit. Recycling comes at phase three of the life cycle, once a product has run its course with the secondary owner; however, even at this stage, a recycling organization may be able to resell the item to a tertiary user, typically in a developing country.

PR agency Citigate Cunningham offers a textbook implementation of the EPA’s lifecycle framework. CEO Christine Pfendt says that her firm has a four-tier process for disposing of old equipment. Its first option is to resell newer equipment, typically by posting an ad on Craigslist (/www.craigslist.org). Usable hardware with little resale value, most notably cell phones, is donated to a nonprofit. While Citigate usually does not use equipment brokers, it has sold some items through an online marketplace. Items that are obsolete or broken are taken to local recyclers the firm has vetted.

Pfendt says that the process is easy to manage, with the hardest aspect being asset identification and reconciliation—it’s important to ensure that old equipment is purged from their financial records. Enterprises concerned about the administrative overhead of managing a reuse and recycling program can turn to one of the many used equipment brokers, such as CCNY (www.ccny.com) or DMD Systems Recovery (www.dmdsystems.com), that provide a convenient turnkey solution.

Get Green

E-waste contains a witch’s brew of toxic materials, ranging from heavy metals such as lead, lithium, and cadmium to brominated flame retardants and carcinogens such as beryllium. The increasing production of electronic components is causing a concomitant increase in the e-waste stream, while the low rates of reuse and recycling pose a problem for both domestic and foreign landfills. Yet going green by adopting a reuse and recycling policy for computer equipment and consumables need not be burdensome and can provide a small financial return on resold hardware or media.

by Kurt Marko

Key Contaminants In CRT Monitors

Some materials found in old CRT monitors are harmful. Human health and environmental concerns related to the presence of these substances arise if the equipment is improperly disassembled or incinerated.

Lead. CRTs contain up to 4 pounds of lead, and circuit boards also contain some of this metal. Lead is toxic and can delay neurological development in children and cause other adverse health effects in adults. Lead can leach out of CRT glass and circuit boards disposed of in landfills, or it can be released into the environment by incineration.

Brominated flame retardants. Found in plastic casings of personal computers, CRT monitors, and circuit boards, brominated flame retardants can persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms, where they may cause liver and thyroid toxicity. They can be released into the environment when computer parts are shredded or heated. CRT monitors may also contain antimony, barium oxide, and phosphors, which could cause human health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.


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