Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hard-to-Recycle Item #2: Electronics Pt. 1

The Dirty Little Secret of the Digital Age

In this modern world of sensory overload and exponential technological growth, we must be careful not to get caught up in an illusion of progress and disposability, something that makes it easy to overlook and forget what exactly we're throwing away when something needs to be replaced.

I am talking about the tons of electronic waste (a.k.a. e-waste) Americans generate each year, which includes over 25 million television sets, 47 million computers, and 150 million cell phones. If this is not shocking enough, electronic waste of this nature often ends up in one of three places: landfill or incinerator facilities, federal prison recycling plants, and developing countries, all of which release and expose toxins to workers, the public and the environment in one way or another. It does not help that our federal government actively promotes all three of these options by deregulating landfill restrictions, operating prison recycling plants, which are our government's number one e-waste depository, and refusing to ratify The Basel Convention, which bans exporting hazardous waste from wealthy countries to poor countries, and has been signed by nearly every other developed country (notable exceptions being Russia and Israel). It is not surprising that the United States refuses to sign on, considering they have yet to adopt the Kyoto Protocol (essentially reducing 1990 emissions levels by 20% by 2020). Hopefully (keep your fingers crossed!), a breakthrough will occur at the next round of talks in Copenhagen in December.

Landfills are the ultimate bane of environmentalism and shouldn't even be used as a last resort option. They have been proven to leak chemicals (known as leachate) and methane gas at an alarming rate. More than 4.6 million tons of e-waste met its final resting place in the year 2000 at landfills in the United States (EPA). This is not good for babies; lead, cadmium and mercury (found in most TVs and computers) can cause brain and kidney damage, especially in children. Brominated flame retardants (found on the plastic casings for computers) can affect hormonal functions in a young child's development. One tablespoon of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake (CHaRM). These chemicals could all be potentially leaking into your local groundwater.

Through a subsidary company UNICOR, the federal government operates prison recycling plants in seven locations across the United States generating over $765 million in sales in 2005. Complaints have been made about the occupational safety and exposure to hazardous chemicals by prison workers, guards and even the public. While the Boulder County Recycling Center employs the use of prison inmates, we never handle hazardous materials unless they come out by accident due to negligence by residents or businesses. These federal prison labor camps, paying the inmates a dollar an hour, are essentially toxic sweatshops. More on this subject later.

One of the most secretive and ultimately tragic disposal methods of electronic waste is by shipping it to developing countries such as China, Vietnam, Ghana, Nigeria, and Pakistan. These are just a few of the growing list of countries that covertly allow electronic waste dumping and recycling. Most national and international law finds this smuggling practice illegal, but somehow the shipping containers full of TVs and computers from the west get through. Workers strip the electronics of their precious metals by burning the plastic or dipping the cases in acid concoctions. Not only is the personal and environmental health at stake, but also the privacy of millions is compromised when hard drives are salvaged and resold, often to organized criminals who sift through the hard drives looking for financial information. Because I feel like I'm not giving this issue adequate justice, your homework assignment is to watch the following investigative reports: Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, The Wasteland, and The eSteward Solution. They are all very informative and cover most of what I'm saying.

The biggest turnover in electronic supply and demand happens around the holidays, when millions of Americans replace their TVs or computers, or buy the newest video game system, and then throw out their old, defunct models. This is accentuated by the development of HD flat screens, the switch to digital signals and cheaper computers, especially PCs, which tempt consumers (myself included) with quicker, flashier technologies. While only a disciplined belief in living simply (so that others can simply live) can slow this wave of consumerism down (or acting naughty throughout the year so Santa Claus doesn't visit your house), it is important to recognize that your choice to dispose of something will have hazardous environmental consequences, often becoming someone else's problem, if not acted upon responsibly.

The first question you should ask yourself in getting rid of a device is whether it can be reused. If it can, consider giving it to someone in need, posting it to your local Craigslist or Freecycle, or donating it to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Volunteers like myself are happy to take working TVs off your hands, especially if they fall into the quicker, flashier and mainly, larger categories. If it doesn't work anymore, search for your closest take-back program or electronic recycler. Surprisingly, 99% of electronic materials can be recycled through stripping a gadget of its valuable materials like copper, gold, glass, plastic and steel ( However, a lot of these so-called recyclers end up shipping their e-waste overseas for folks in developing countries to do the toxic stripping, so it's important to check for an e-Steward certification, which guarantees your e-waste will not be exported, sent to a landfill or incinerator, or recycled in a prison labor camp.

A good site to find take-back programs is Your local Best Buy, Staples or Office Depot usually has some sort of take-back program. The manufacturer of your gadget may have a mail-back collection program in place as well; Dell leads the way with this as far as computers, and Apple has indicated measures they will introduce soon to boost their green score. Take-Back-My-TV has convinced six major manufacturers (Sony, Samsung, LG, Sharp, Panasonic, and Toshiba) to start take-back programs. As for cell phones, check out Project KOPEG (thanks Nadia!) on ways to mass recycle phones for money, or check with your service provider to see if they have established any exchange programs.

So come this holiday season, remember to safely dispose of your old TV, computer or cell phone before you buy that new one. Your conscious decision to recycle electronic waste properly, whether you succeed or not, is a moral acknowledgement that some people in the world (and the world itself for that matter) are being harmed by our wasteful decisions as a modern society. It's a step forward in the direction of true progress, sustainability; sometimes it takes baby steps.

Videos to Watch:;photovideo

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