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:
- 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).
- Get acquainted with your state's e-waste laws: A great state by state summary is published by the Electronics Takeback Coalition.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.