Goal Green

Electro-Pollution: A Story of Horror and Hope
July 24, 2007, 10:46 pm
Filed under: E-Waste, Electronics, Pollution, Toxic Waste

One of the most underestimated forms of human pollution and carbon emissions on our planet comes from our waste of electronics. As eager as we are to buy a new iPhone, HDTV, or tablet PC, we often overlook the impacts of these purchases. As we advance technologically, we seem to fall behind environmentally. As electronics waste more electricity, they are even worse off if (and when) we throw them away. Made up of a laundry list of toxic materials, high-tech devices are a huge problem in the developing world. Luckily, it is within our reach to reform our production, consumption, and “recycling” practices within the decade.

Newer TVs use more electricity and are getting more popular. By 2009, the year that half of all of new U.S. TV sales are expected to be big screened HDTVs, it is expected that our televisions will use about 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year. This is about a 50% growth from last year’s averages. The electricity bill doesn’t stop there; we are buying more DVD players, laptops, desktops, game systems and smart phones as well. Think about your first cell phone. It probably had very few features, except that essential one that all phones do—it could make phone calls. Its battery, albeit weak, could probably last for a few days on end without a trip to the wall socket. Smart phones, on the other hand, tend to drain a lot of energy; requiring more powerful batteries and more charging.

The other, perhaps more serious problem with electronics is that they are on the far end of the biodegradability spectrum. In fact, they not only contain plastic and other polymers that are harmful to us and our ecosystem, they also contain tons of toxic chemicals. The ingredients of computer monitors, televisions, and laptop displays contain the likes of the neurotoxin lead, copper, beryllium, barium, zinc, chromium, silver, nickel, polyvinyl chloride (the plastic around wiring that generates dioxins and furans), and brominated flame retardants (documented to disrupt thyroid hormone function and act as neurotoxins in animals). Some of the flame retardants are used with the plastics in the casing of cellular phones and have been found in the breast milk of women in the U.S., not to mention marine mammals.

How do these chemicals get into our environment and, more so, our bodies? It all has to do with the life-cycle of these products. Typically, after natural resources and polymers are utilized to make very small chips and boards, they are encased and then marketed to the general public. After the purchase and use of these products, a time period which is also dwindling given the pace of innovation in this field, the consumer often ends up throwing these devices out with the trash. For instance, only about 10% of personal computers are ever recycled.

The overwhelming bulk of our e-waste goes straight into landfills, where about 20 – 50% of the toxic materials will begin to degrade in our soilthat is the good part. Some 50 – 80% will end up being shipped to decrepit villages in China. Here labor is cheap and you can find men and women heating toxic circuit boards over a fire in order to pluck out the chips. This process is repeated for all of the “valuable” materials. For the rest of the waste, a worker administers acid and then lets the lethal mixture flow into the river. It is said that these types of villages produce a toxic odor that can be felt miles away, while the waste ends up in our ecosystems, in our food supply.

In reaction to this horror, certain U.S. states have passed legislation in recent years which bans the disposal of certain chemicals. States like California, Iowa, and Massachusetts have initiated recycling programs of varying degrees. Big buyers are contributing too, with government, schools, and corporations all sending their machines back to manufacturers. Since there is no national initiative, or ban on all the harmful materials, much of the pollution is in full swing. The problem that arises is that most recycling programs are funded by taxpayers and are thus limited monetarily in their ability to extract materials.

Fortunately, the problem of these high costs has already been solved for us. The European Union has ruled to require manufacturers to take back the products that they sell in order to recycle them. The hefty costs of recycling are pinned on the manufacturer in a concept known as Extended Producer Responsibility. This system is financed by fees that are factored into the product’s cost. Not only does this method give incentives for consumers to recycle their e-waste (since they have already paid for it), but it also gives electronics manufacturers incentives to design their products with less hazardous waste. The less waste, the lower their recycling bill, the more profit they get to keep.

Luckily for Americans that have grown accustomed to seeing absolutely no action from their federal government on the environmental front, Europe’s policies will affect the whole world. Since most large electronics producers sell their products globally, their standards for Europe will end up in America as well.

What we can do for now, however, is to stay aware of the issue through informative sources such as the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Among all else, we should send our electronics back to the manufacturer once we are done with them, thank Europe, and urge our own government to pass legislation that is universally beneficial.

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3 Comments so far
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I found some of the information in this article somewhat misleading – the US is not just standing by as other nations act on the issue of electronics waste. I work at a national non-profit organization called the Product Stewardship Institute, Inc. (PSI) PSI works with state and local government representatives to get producers to take greater responsibility for their products in order to reduce the overall environmental impact of them. Electronics are one of the product categories we work on. We have done work to implement electronics product stewardship programs, like the one in the EU, in the United States. Currently there are 8 US states with active electronics take-back legislation (ME, CA, MD, CT, OR, TX, MN, WA). Many of these programs are less comprehensive than the EU one, as the state legislations mostly cover computers, peripherals and TVs and the EU legislation (called WEEE) covers all products with a plug and cord.
Recently PSI conducted a pilot project with Staples, Inc. to collect end-of-life computers and peripheral devices in the northeast. It was successful and Staples is rolling it out nationally so that all Staples stores will accept certain end-of-life electronics for recycling. The US is on its way to creating nation-wide product stewardship legislation for electronics.
For more information on US electronics product stewardship initiatives see computertakeback.com and productstewardship.us/electronics.

Comment by Sarah

Thanks for your insight, Sarah, I did fail to name some of the states that have their own legislation in place. My point, however, was that the U.S. is very slow in passing national legislation. I will be sure to do some research on product stewardship today and will try to write something about that and the Staples project. Thanks again, and I appreciate your contribution to this field.

Comment by Arthur Getman

[…] Monday July 30th 2007, 2:39 am Filed under: Uncategorized Just a brief note regarding the e-waste article, there is a reader who directed me towards a few very helpful sources. The Computer Take Back […]

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