Yesterday I posted an article on the environmental and human rights disaster that computer "recycling" is creating in countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Today, I contacted Greenpeace's Casey Harrell (from their Toxics Division) to follow up and determine if we can do anything within Ed Tech to dispose of our e-waste responsibly. Here are the questions and his responses (thanks as well to Jane Kochersperger for putting us in touch).
1. Since my focus is educational technology, are there known, reputable recyclers in the US and internationally who don't export e-waste and reclaim materials in an environmentally responsible way?
The best recyclers are ones that pledge not to export to developing countries, sending e-waste to landfill or use prison labor (common) to sort, process the waste. Our colleagues at the Electronics Take Back Campaign have asked recyclers to sign a pledge around these issues. Find recyclers here: http://www.computertakeback.com/the_solutions/recyclers_map.cfm More info on the pledge here: http://www.computertakeback.com/responsible_recycling/infoforrecyclers.cfm
Ultimately, Greenpeace believes in the principle of Individual Producer Responsibility (IPR), a fancy way of saying something my mother taught me when I was young: you make a mess, you clean it up. IPR involves financial responsibility for a product from the beginning of the product's cycle (mining of materials, production) to disposal/recycling, etc and all steps in between. Consumer electronics companies are slowly (w/a little helpful push IMO from Greenpeace and other advocates) accepting IPR as a key solution to challenging our mounting e-waste crisis , and there are financial incentives for these companies to do so, especially once they are making cleaner products w/out hazardous chemicals (which is also slowly happening) -- as they will be able to recoup costs of metals and plastics from previous models to be used in new products. IPR relates to your question because ultimately these OEMs (manufacturers) are responsible for this waste (and to deal w/it properly) so as more companies embrace IPR (and they are held accountable for it), we should both a combination of more intermediate recycling facilities as well as more expansive (cost neutral to consumers) global takeback programs, where consumers will be able to send their products (at-cost) back to the manufacturer.
2. Is there any way to know if your current recycler is one of the "bad guys"?
See above. If a recycler won't pledge the baseline of the ETBC's pledge, it's likely your waste is headed for export to China, India, Pakistan (or as you see, increasingly Africa or Latin America) or it is headed to the incinerator. Unfortunately, until global takeback programs (and full IPR) from the OEMs are universal, another telling sign is whether you have to pay a fee to a recycler -- if there is no fee (especially for larger and/or heavier items like TVs, monitors) it's likely your recycler is simply shipping this waste overseas. There are exceptions, like in California with the very regressive Advanced Recycling Fee (not good, I can explain more if you'd like) where you could leave certain items like monitors w/out paying a fee (b/c the state administers payment to recyclers in lieu of fees collected at point of purchase from consumers), but the way to go is IPR, full financial responsibility coming from these manufacturers.
The US EPA estimates that 80% of e-waste escapes in hidden flows to developing countries (where the situation of open burning and basic dumping, ala Ghana, is all too familiar) and of the remaining 20%, much of that is simply going to landfill. With an estimated 20-50 million tons of e-waste generated/year (this is a UNEP figure that if anything, given that it is a few years old, is conservative), this is a massive amount of e-waste.
3. Why has this received so little attention in the US media? With such an emphasis on "green-ness" lately, you would think we'd see more than a little ripple on Slashdot.
Our issues have been well received, but of course we'd appreciate more coverage - we think the issue clearly warrants it. Our campaign work has pushed greater understanding of the e-waste issue both in the consumer sphere and the corporate sphere -- we've seen companies change their stance and approach to the issue of ewaste and begin to make steps to design out the toxic chemicals, run their units more energy efficiently and begin to take responsibility for the waste their products create.
That said, there is plenty of education to do on this issue w/consumers. Information about the environmental specs (and basic info about what to do w/you product to extend life and also do at end of life -- remember reduce, reuse THEN recycle) can't be on page 7 of the small booklet that comes w/the product that's in 5 different languages -- and that nobody reads. Nokia published a global survey of their consumer recently showing that a small fraction (roughly 1/6) of them knew where to recycle their phone (or knew how to find such info). Clearly there's loads of work still to be done -- there has to be multiple pathways forward here, one is increased coverage of the issue, another is increase consumer education coming from these companies.
4. What are the most effective steps we can take, particular in education where we tend to have some pretty ancient machines that make their way out of our buildings, to ensure that we aren't contributing to this trade?
Good question. In addition to checking the recyclers pledge above, here are a few other ideas: Find the manufacturers website to see what take back programs and initiatives they offer in their state/country. These links are often not easy to find, and can also be find by looking at this criteria question in our Greenpeace Ranking Guide (by clicking on each companies detailed score) which comes out quarterly and ranks companies based on their overall policy commitments: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/electronics/how-the-companies-line-up
Other basic steps:
- Shut down computer/hibernate/sleep when not in use. While e-waste is critical, the electronics industry sucks energy, so conserve (and buy e-efficient models when you must replace)
- Do not throw computers away w/regular trash
- Investigate upgradable parts, length of warranty, and availability of replacement parts (again tricky to find, so consult the detailed questions on our ranking guide if needed) to see if you can extend the length of your product, instead of buying a new one (reduce, reuse, then recycle)
- Consult with Greenpeace's yearly survey (I am currently working on the 2nd edition, which will come out in Jan 09) which highlights the greenest products on the market. If you need to buy a new product, consult this list. We released our first version of the survey (Searching for Green Electronics) this past March. http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/searching-for-green-electronics.pdf