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An E-Waste Call to Arms

[editor's note: Although I wrote this nearly two years ago, it's still very relevant and I thought you, dear reader, would appreciate another public airing. I will follow it later with the second installment.]

The electronics revolution continues to bring us gee whiz tools, making our lives easier and even more fun. But it doesn't come free. We have created so many electronic toys, tools and gizmos that we are awash in them with no letup in sight. We are now facing an overflow of old, used, and broken electronics equipment in our waste stream. We have forgotten one of the tenets that we should have learned, according to author Robert Fulghum, in kindergarten. In case you're wondering, one of his 20+ points from his “All I really needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten” says that in that grade you learn to clean up your own mess. Obviously, many of us were absent from kindergarten that day.

Electronics waste or e-waste is a collection of discarded electronics that gets into the waste stream from all of us. It has reached critical mass because we are not cleaning up after ourselves. Many of us don't know what to do with our old equipment so we store it until we can figure out a responsible way to get rid of it. Like many of you, I have a variety of old computer parts including a monitor, system unit, cables, keyboards, cell phones and even PCBs – waiting for a place to be recycled.

What happens to E-Waste?
Some statistics from just California indicate that more than 2.2 million computers are sold each year in that state. Using what I consider a high turnover rate of two years, a report extrapolates that more than 6,000 computers go to waste every day in California. However, even if we cut that in half, or 3,000 every day, the problem is still significant.

Like you and I, most companies also store computers, only for them it is in back rooms and offices. Many companies are unwilling or reluctant to discard the computers as trash. Yet, an increasing number are entering the waste stream. “The 1999 Electronic Product Recovery And Recycling Baseline Report”, prepared by Stanford Resources Inc. for the National Safety Council, stated that in 1998 some 20.6 million computers became obsolete in the United States. The report predicted that number would top 50 million by this year. Put another way, e-waste represents from 2% to 5% of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream. An estimated 300,000 tons of e-waste ended up in U.S. landfills in 2000, and the problem is expected to grow four-fold in the next few years.

It is a serious problem because e-waste contains significant quantities of toxic materials. For example, each computer or television display monitor contains an average of two to eight pounds of lead. Monitor glass contains about 20% lead by weight. Approximately 70% of the heavy metals including mercury and cadmium found in landfills come from electronic equipment discards. These heavy metals and other hazardous substances found in electronics can contaminate groundwater and pose other environmental and public health risks. Some states, including California and Massachusetts, realize the gravity of the problem and have made disposal of CRTs in landfills illegal.

So what can companies do with e-waste? Some recycle it here in the states and others find overseas partners to recycle the waste. An investigation by an international coalition of environmental organizations discovered that huge quantities of e-waste are exported to China, Pakistan and India where it is processed in operations harmful to human health and the environment. The organizations — Basel Action Network (BAN) and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) with support from Toxics Link India, Greenpeace China and SCOPE (Pakistan) — produced a report on the investigation entitled: “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.”

The report said that the United States government is encouraging this trade. The investigation uncovered an entire area known as Guiyu in the Quangdong Province, surrounding the Lianjiang River located 4 hours drive northeast of Hong Kong. Approximately 100,000 migrant workers are employed there breaking apart and processing obsolete computers imported primarily from North America.
The operations include open burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead laden cathode ray tubes. According to the report many tons of the e-waste were dumped along rivers, in open fields and irrigation canals in the rice growing area. The pollution in Guiyu is so bad that the well water is no longer drinkable, requiring water be trucked in from 30 kilometers away for the entire population.

BAN and SVTC are calling on the United States to follow Europe's example and immediately implement the global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the United States to developing countries and likewise to solve the e-waste problem “upstream” by mandating that the electronics industry institute “take-back” recycling programs, toxic input phase-outs and green design for long-life, upgradeability and ease of recycling.

The US government and industry groups are aware of the problem. Tentative steps to correct the problem are being taken. The Arlington, Virginia-based Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned by the findings” and that it was working with US regulators on better ways of managing end-of-life products. The organization said it would promote re-use and recycling of products. The EIA also said that because most high-tech manufacturing is now based overseas, especially in Asia (see the reference in article written by eeProductCenter's editor Alex Mendelsohn), export of discarded parts is needed to promote the re-use of old components. They said that the flow of toxic waste will not be reduced until cost-effective substitutes can be found for critical chemicals, heavy metals, and other materials needed to build an ever-growing range of electronic devices.

Some say the United States is out of step with the international Basel Convention, which in 1994 adopted a total ban on the export of all hazardous wastes from rich to poor countries for any reason, including recycling. We should notice that the European Union (EU) members passed laws that would require producers to take responsibility for the full life-cycle of products containing toxic materials. The EU is developing a directive to enforce these limits. I'm sure the US is paying close attention to the directive proceedings.

Who's Mess Is This?
Responsibility for old computer parts is complicated by the global supply chain whereby name-brand manufacturers sub-contract piece work to low-cost contractors overseas, who in turn sub-contract to others. For example, a typical US personal computer designed in Texas or California probably has computer chips built in Taiwan, circuit boards put together in Malaysia and final assembly done in Mexico. So who is responsible for recycling or reuse of parts?

A few PC makers and large retailers have launched recycling programs, but they require consumers to pay around $30 and ship their old PCs themselves. With no organized system of electronics recycling as Japan and some European countries have, much of the nation's e-waste ends up being passed along a difficult-to-track chain of resellers and parts brokers.

To make electronics manufacturers accountable for their obsolete products, several organizations believe the cost of recycling a computer should be added to the initial sales price – much like a bottle deposit – to fund the recycling programs. A few states are considering such plans, including California, where two state senators introduced bills that would slap fees on electronics to pay for reducing e-waste.

Is the answer to get the producers themselves to take responsibility for collecting and recycling the millions of obsolete computers? Some think it is the responsibility of the manufacturers because they made the electronic products, collected the money for them, and then marketed new products so everyone would buy new computers and discard the old ones. Therefore manufacturers must take responsibility for their part in the waste chain and develop ways of helping people either reuse or recycle the old computers.

As I look around my house, at my growing pile of e-waste, I think that if we are to keep this toxic stew from entering our landfills and eventually into our water supplies we must involve everyone. The designers/manufacturers must help design a system that recovers what they can reuse or recycle. The consumer must play a part by acting responsibly and contributing any e-waste to this recovery effort. The details as to who pays and where recovery takes place can be worked out along the way.

What about Green Computers?
This whole article deals with electronic design and the current way computers are manufactured. Computers use about a thousand toxic compounds or combine parts so that it is difficult to extract reusable products. Maybe we can start by making one that doesn't rely on all the toxic materials currently used. Maybe we can develop alternatives. What do you think?

References:
Basel Action Network (BAN) is a global network of activists working for global environmental justice and against trade in toxic wastes, toxic technologies and toxic products. Visit: www.ban.org

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is a 20 year community-based coalition that advocates for cleaner production, and sustainable occupational and environmental health practices within the electronics industry. Visit: www.svtc.org

Compaq's Asset Recovery Service
compaq.com.au

European Parliament Directive on Electronic and Electrical Waste Includes press releases and the full text of the proposal europa.eu.int

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