5 things you should know about e-waste

5 things you should know about e-waste

Summary: Some of the best-read posts in this blog over time have covered a topic that continues to bubble up in the public consciousness: how to get rid of the computers and mobile phones and printers and consumer electronics gadgets that we have outgrown or overused.This burgeoning issue of electronic waste, or e-waste for those of us who have to shorten tech phenomena into sound bites, is both a consumer concern and a commercial concern, and now the U.

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Some of the best-read posts in this blog over time have covered a topic that continues to bubble up in the public consciousness: how to get rid of the computers and mobile phones and printers and consumer electronics gadgets that we have outgrown or overused.

This burgeoning issue of electronic waste, or e-waste for those of us who have to shorten tech phenomena into sound bites, is both a consumer concern and a commercial concern, and now the U.S. Environment Protection Agency has named it as one of its six overriding priorities. The fact is, we can no longer sweep these things under the rug, so to speak.

Here's how the EPA puts it in its press release:

"The electronics that provide us with convenience often end up discarded in developing countries where improper disposal can threaten local people and the environment. EPA recognizes this urgent concern and will work with international partners to address the issues of e-waste. In the near term, EPA will on ways to improve the design, production, handling, reuse, recycling, exporting and disposal of electronics."

The timing isn't so surprising, considering that the General Accounting Office (GAO) just released a report finding that the EPA needed to step up its effort in this regard. So far, the agency's main focus has been on recycling and export of cathode ray tubes (CRTs).

"In particular, the EPA does not specifically regulate the export of many other electronic devices, such as cell phones, which typically are not within the regulatory definition of hazardous waste despite containing some toxic substances. In addition, the impact of EPA's partnership programs is limited or uncertain, and EPA has not systematically analyzed the programs to determine how their impact could be augmented."

The fact that close to half of all U.S. states now have some sort of e-waste legislation is perhaps another indicator that we should be paying more attention. In my own state (New Jersey), it is illegal to send various electronics to landfills. But invariably, when I ask friends about this, they haven't a clue and I still see stuff sitting curbside from time to time in my neighborhood. The commercial world fallout related to e-waste ignorance is twofold: first, regulatory compliance (of course) dictates how and when you can get rid of certain data, which is one reason that people hold onto stuff that should be recycled; the bigger the quantity you are ditching, the more interest certain less-than-scrupulous organizations have in getting their hands on your technology and disposing of it as cheaply as possible.

Given the evolving nature of the e-waste issue, it is virtually impossible for anyone to be an expert, but here are five things you can use to guide your corporate or personal policies:

  1. Bone up on the Basel Convention: This is an international treaty that guides policy regarding toxic waste. An amendment know as the Basel Ban Amendment seeks to prohibit developed economies from shipping hazardous waste to developing nations. Although the United States has signed the convention, the country has never ratified it (this requires legislation).
  2. Get acquainted with your state's e-waste laws: A great state by state summary is published by the Electronics Takeback Coalition.
  3. Understand the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility: This is the notion that the manufacturer of a product (i.e., the high-tech hardware giants of the world) should have hand in getting rid of what they originally created. I'm not suggesting that your vendor will take the problem off your hand, but it's important to know what cooperative programs exist.
  4. Research your disposal options: The program that has most traction right now -- as well as the support of the EPA -- is something called e-Stewards, which is certified by an audit. There are currently about 50 recycling companies rallying under this designation. What's more, there are even corporate-level supporters. The Responsible Recycling (R2) program contains some elements of what's in e-Stewards, but the two programs do have differences.
  5. Little things mean a lot: Don't forget to account for smart phones and mobile phones in your e-wasted policy. The last time it crunched the numbers, the EPA estimated that only 10 percent of mobile phones are actually recycled or passed along. E-waste itself is the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the United States.

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6 comments
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  • "It's the mining, stupid"

    The General Mining Act of 1872 still sets the cost of mining on federal lands at $5 per acre. 14 of the 15 largest Superfund sites? Hard rock mines on federal land. 45% of all toxics released by all USA industry. Reform the mining of copper, gold, silver, palladium, etc., and the free market will recycle "e-waste" faster than you can say "free market". http://retroworks.blogspot.com/
    retroworks
  • RE: 5 things you should know about e-waste

    You left out batteries. Non rechargeable are bad and newer lithium or whichever heavy metal is in vogue, are truly bad. It is not really our (EU, USA, G20 folks) job to assure safety of indigenous people in India or China. Companies and/or individuals purchase mountains of electronic waste for shipment to their countries where citizens break it down in order to receive a wage that won't feed a hummingbird.

    Finally a wish of mine, "Let no child go to bed hungry, cold or fearful." Just might be the BEST weapon in so called 'war on terrorism.'
    LostValley
  • RE: 5 things you should know about e-waste

    Thanks for a great post on e-waste laws. We follow e-waste at our website http://bit.ly/dsMM9U and appreciate the e-Stewards mention.
    bporter@...
  • Heather's right, of course, and what *you* do matters...

    When I posted the recent NYT photo essay on ewaste to my facebook page, a friend immediately queried, "What?s a responsible person supposed to do?." The interactive map on www.e-stewards.org helped her find a responsible recycler near her. We can all do that. We can all talk about it so that IT's dirty little secret begins to see the light of day. You can read more about how to know if you recycler is doing the right thing at http://bit.ly/a4T1S4.

    Another aspect of this nobody seems to be talking about is the rapidly diminishing rare earth elements that make a lot of electronics work. It'll be a lot easier to reclaim and re-use these compounds if they haven't been tossed into a landfill or incinerated. And it's not just abroad that improper handling of electronics poses a threat - it's here. It's our water, it's our soil, and our citizens that can be exposed to toxins without careful precautions.

    I?d been using computers for decades before I first learned about e-waste when I was researching Green IT For Dummies a few years ago. I?d wager that most people who use electronics are ignorant of what happens to them, beyond the extent that their local garbage collector charges a fee or won?t collect it all. Retailers can do us all a big service by providing drop-off points and responsible recycling ? a number have, but awareness is still minimal.
    carolbaroudi
  • Provide bigger incentives to bigger users . . .

    Overall consumers are huge part of the e-waste stream, but collecting consumer equipment is a daunting task and consumers are resistant to any change--no matter how noble--that is perceived as inconvenient. The recycler I use (an e-Steward in Houston, TX) TechnoCycle http://technocycle.com accepts my personal ewaste but they don't hide the fact that they are targeting bigger businesses. Why? Because if you can get corporations that refresh computers and electronics in units of hundreds and thousands to change then you make a quicker, bigger impact in the waste stream. So more than taking out your own trash (so to speak) check up on your companies policies (if they have one) and put in a word of encouragement to use an e-Steward or the like. A couple of concerned voiced can make a much bigger change that way.
    green_apple
  • X-ray film recycling

    X-ray film disposal services - nationwide free pick-up 100% Eco - Friendly http://www.xrayfilmsdisposal.com/austin-tx
    bwtommy