Electronics Recycling: What are your eco-friendly options?
One of the newest issues facing Oregon residents is the proper disposition of end-of-life (EOL) electronics.
In 2005, Oregonians threw away 32,500 tons of computers, televisions and other out-of-date electronics, mostly into landfills or dumps. Many devices contain toxic metals such as mercury, lead or cadmium. If electronic equipment is intact and disposed of properly, the materials generally pose no health or environmental hazards, however, when broken, toxic chemicals are released into the ground and water, causing contamination. Many of these toxic chemicals are persistent and bio-accumulate. This means the toxic chemicals do not break down into safer components, and they can accumulate and leach into our surrounding environment.
While the issue of electronic purchasing, reuse and recycling is a hot topic on the US environmental plate, there is a lot that Oregonians can do to protect themselves and the environment from these hazards. First, we can educate ourselves on environmentally preferable equipment to purchase. Second, we can perform our due diligence on the recycler we give our used equipment to; and know the difference between reuse and recycling. Thanks to a new state-wide law that went into affect Jan. 1st, 2009, Oregon E-Cycles provides free recycling of computers, monitors and TVs.
Consumers interested in purchasing products for their home or business can find options via EPEAT. EPEAT was developed for organizations that buy computers on large purchase contracts and participating manufacturers primarily register products that are bought by institutional purchasers. However, EPEAT is available to consumers for free and is an effective way to identify environmentally preferable products. EPEAT’s listing includes electronic equipment with few environmentally sensitive materials, consuming less energy, and offering longer product life cycles.
Responsible Re-Use or Recycling: Why It’s Important
And why should we be concerned about where our electronics end up? The answer is two fold: because the US has yet to outlaw the use of toxic materials in electronic equipment, and because the laws meant to protect developing countries from our e-waste are difficult to enforce. Here are the toxics most commonly used in electronics:
Lead - Each cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor and television contains approximately 4-8 lbs of lead. Lead is toxic to the kidneys, nervous and reproductive systems, and inhibits mental development of young children and fetuses. Lead is also found in solder (material that adheres components to circuit boards). Improper dumping of electronics may account for 40% of lead in landfills.
Cadmium - Found in semiconductors, chip resistors, infrared detectors, older types of CRTs, and some plastics, cadmium is linked to kidney damage and is harmful to fragile bones. Nickel-cadmium batteries are the most common cadmium-based products. Cadmium has been found in water, air, soil, and food.
Brominated Flame Retardants (BFR’s) are used in plastics. An average computer is comprised of up to 13 lbs of plastic, mixed with one if not more toxic substance. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE’s), a type of BFR, was originally used in television sets to reduce the combustibility during a fire, allowing more escape time. However, PBDE’s have been recognized as an endocrine disrupter, and can cause harm to a developing fetus. In some places plastics are burned, spreading this toxic substance throughout the atmosphere.
Mercury - Mercury has no positive effect on the human system. Low-level exposure to mercury in the womb can cause brain damage in children. High doses of mercury can be fatal. Its compounds primarily affect the central nervous system, kidneys, liver and can disturb immune processes. Although the principle pathway of mercury exposure is from fish consumption, it is also passed through medical and dental products and lastly from industrial products such as electronics. Mercury from landfill waste streams can end up in the sewage sludge that is sometimes used as agricultural fertilizer; contaminating our soil and food. It can also be passed via breast milk. Mercury is present in our atmosphere via coal fired power stations. Forty-five states in the US have now issued mercury warnings for anglers. “Mercury has long been recognized as a major source of toxicity in children causing reduced cognitive functioning, including reduced I.Q.,” says Pediatrician Gavin ten Tusscher. In fact, 70% of environmental mercury now comes from human activities: coal burning, incineration or improper disposal of mercury containing products. Mercury is found in fluorescent light bulbs, flat panel displays (LCD’s), switches, batteries, and printed wiring boards.
In our green state of Oregon, what are we doing to prevent toxic e-waste from entering our landfills or harming those abroad? In 2007, Oregon passed a law to become one of eight states with producer take back responsibility for certain covered electronic items. The law will go into effect in January 1, 2009, directly benefiting residents, non-profits, churches and small businesses from having to pay out of pocket for recycling.
But the answer to toxic polluting does not end there. While the European Union has implemented a successful take back program for a vast array of electronics, the US lacks a homogenous program and relative federal laws that stipulate the proper disposition of material handling. Therefore, the burden falls upon the equipment owner to properly dispose of their e-waste.
While reuse sounds like a great idea, take caution when seeking a recycler or non-profit that refurbishes and turns out older systems. A recent article from the Associated Press highlights the problem of e-waste brokers exporting used electronics for disposal under the cover of donating used systems. “Reuse is the new excuse. It’s the new passport to export,” said Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network. “Other countries are facing this glut of exported used equipment under the pretext that it’s all going to be reused.” It is further estimated that over 500 shipping containers full of e-waste arrive in Lagos, Nigeria for improper disposal every month, mostly sent from the US and most of which is burnt or smashed.
If you choose to use a non-profit or for-profit recycling company to recycle and dispose of your old equipment, you should ask where the recyclable items end up. Some items and components end up in waste dumps, rather than being recycled. Others are loaded into shipping containers and sent overseas to be sold through brokers, or they are recycled using unsafe methods and hazardous chemicals. How can you help reduce the two to four million tons of e-waste from the US which ends up overseas each year for hazardous recycling?
Know your options. While some recyclers do not focus on remarketing, others do and most charge a fee to dispose of your equipment if it goes to destruction. If you really are concerned, seek an ISO 14001 Certified company; this high standard of environmental performance means the recycler’s environmental management system is audited annually by a 3rd party for environmental responsibility, preventing pollution, and continuous improvement. If you are a business generator of e-waste, does the firm pay you for the commodities they resell or do they call it “free” recycling and keep all the profits? As of Jan. 1st, 2009, Oregonians can safely recycle computers, monitors and TV's for free. Click here to find a collection center near you.
Anyone ready to part with their equipment are encouraged to ask a series of questions:
- What type of certification is available to document that the equipment was properly recycled?
- Does the firm have the necessary federal, state and local permits?
- How does the firm deal with data, especially HIPPA information?
- Does the firm perform environmental audits on downstream vendors?
- How does the firm deal with Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT’s)?
- Does the firm have direct relationships with primary circuit board (CB) smelters for precious metals recovery? (If not, these high value items are likely sold to a broker in the US who can dispose of them in any manner they choose.) Are all CB’s sent to a primary?
- If items are refurbished for reuse what specifications must this item meet? (How responsible is it to donate an item for reuse that is not compatible with today’s hardware and software? Is your item old to you? Then how long will it truly benefit someone who doesn’t have the means to pay for the recycling when it no longer works?)
- “We deal with items responsibly.” What does responsible mean? Keep digging. Ask if you can visit the recycler and perform a site audit to see their operations.
- How does the facility appear? Are your items stored inside? Do workers have personal protective equipment? What type of security does the firm have?
- Can the firm track the materials it processes?
The two most critical items to recycle are CRTs and circuit boards. CRTs have 4-8 lbs of lead, once the monitor is dismantled down to the lead-filled tube, the tubes should be sent to a lead recovery facility that can properly recapture and reuse the material. Monitors and televisions should never end up in a landfill. Since there are no primary circuit board smelters in the US, does the firm send their circuit boards to a US based facility? If so, these organizations may not be recovering the precious metals, forcing increased mining on our earth. Or they are sending the circuit boards overseas for workers in China, Africa, or India to process in substandard, unhealthy working conditions. Some homes in developing countries double as smelter operations, with little to no protection from processes used to recover these metals.
While not all electronics exporting is universally harmful, donors of e-waste should be very cautious and know the precise disposition of materials.
E-waste recyclers in Oregon, provided by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (PDF). The recyclers on this list may or may not fit all the criteria of the above questions, so you will need to ask. Click here for the list [PDF format].
The Seattle-based nonprofit Basel Action Network has created an “e-Stewards” program, where recyclers pledge not to export, dump or use prison labor to deconstruct electronics. Find out more about the pledge here and find local recyclers who have signed the pledge here: http://www.ban.org/pledge/Locations.html.
For more about disposition of e-waste and the new Oregon E-Waste Law visit http://www.oregon.gov/DEQ/
List of nonprofits that accept used electronics. Again, you will need to ask these recyclers the above questions to ensure safe disposal of the materials after use: www.recyclingadvocates.org/wepsi/or-nonprofit.htm
To find out more about the issues associated with exporting e-waste, see Basel Action Network’s report, “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia” here. [PDF]
This information was provided by Sharon Baker, Regional Account Executive, Technology Conservation Group (www.tcgrecycling.com, 503-735-1102 ext. 27, or Sharon.firstname.lastname@example.org) with input from Arielle Tozier de la Poterie, Program Assistant with the Oregon Center for Environmental Health (www.oregon-health.org, 503-233-1510) and additional information and images from the Basel Action Network (www.ban.org).