High-Tech Trash Talk

As much as we love gadgets, a lot of us don’t know nearly enough about how to dispose of them properly (in an environment-friendly manner). When we heard about Elizabeth Grossman’s “High Tech Trash” book, we did seek a meeting with her in downtown San Francisco to ask her a few questions.

Ubergizmo: How bad is the current electronics pollution?

Elizabeth Grossman: The amount of discarded electronics is enormous.

The U.N. estimates that worldwide we’re disposing of 20 to 50 million tons of electronic equipment each year. In the U.S. we discard over 250 million computers annually and the federal government alone disposes of over 10,000 computers a week. And we’ve been accumulating this high tech trash at accelerating rates over the past 20 or more years. Altogether electronics are the fastest growing part of the waste stream both in the U.S. and in Europe.

What makes this high tech trash such a problem is that each piece of equipment contains numerous toxic and hazardous materials: heavy metals – including lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury – and many synthetic chemicals that are persistent pollutants (among them flame retardants and other chemicals used in plastics) meaning that they linger in the atmosphere for years and accumulate in animals and people where they can cause serious health problems. These toxics are released when equipment is damaged, destroyed or improperly disposed of — and that’s what happens to a huge amount of our old electronics.

Ubergizmo: How much electronics does the U.S population recycle?

Elizabeth Grossman: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. is only recycling about 10 percent of its used electronics. This means that about 2 million tons of electronics go to U.S. landfills each year, and that a huge amount of our old digital devices are piling up in closets, basements and garages.

Ubergizmo: What are the current electronics recycling regulations in the U.S for consumers and for businesses?

Elizabeth Grossman: Currently, the U.S. has no national laws or regulations requiring recycling of electronics, nor any national ban on sending used computers, TVs, or other high tech equipment to dumps, landfills or incinerators. A handful of states have now passed some kind of e-waste regulation – California, Massachusetts, Maine, Washington, Maryland, and Minnesota. Some of these states now ban equipment with display screens from landfills; some require recycling. But unless your local community regulates e-waste disposal, and unless you’re disposing of large quantities – over 220 pounds a month – it’s legal to put your old IT equipment in the trash.

But in the past few years communities all across the country, as well as businesses of every size, have begun to wake up to the liabilities (and expenses) posed by improper e-waste disposal, both in terms of environmental hazards and data security, so dozens of new e-waste bills have been introduced by states and other local governments, and we’re likely to see more such regulations enacted very soon. Bills have been introduced at the federal level, but as currently drafted they are unlikely to have much substantive impact on the problem.

Ubergizmo: Is it common to outsource recycling to less regarding countries?

Elizabeth Grossman: Unfortunately, it is. It’s estimated that at least half of the electronics sent to recyclers in the U.S. is exported to developing countries – to China, India, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia and to those in Africa, among others – where it’s dismantled and materials recovered for recycling under primitive, unsafe, and unhealthy conditions. The high tech electronics now entering the waste stream are generally difficult to disassemble, so the process is labor intensive and therefore, expensive. So millions of tons of e-waste have been sent to countries where labor is cheap and environmental regulations and enforcement are lax.

Right now, the U.S. has no laws to specifically prohibit the export of e-waste for this kind of primitive environmentally detrimental recycling. And the U.S. is virtually the only industrialized nation that has signed but not yet ratified the Basel Convention, an international agreement designed to curtail the export of hazardous waste. While that would not entirely solve the problem, it’s an important step to shutting down large quantities of such exports.

Ubergizmo: How are other countries dealing with this?

Elizabeth Grossman: In the EU, where electronics recycling is now mandatory is illegal to export e-waste for recycling under conditions that would not meet environmental and safety standards of the exporting, home country. But despite the fact that these exports are not permitted from Europe, or Japan – where electronics recycling is also mandatory – shipments of e-waste are still leaving these countries. They get smuggled out in deliberately mislabeled container loads – marked “plastics” for example, and hop from port to port before they wind up in Asia, Africa or another such market. European governments are trying to deal with this problem but so far the shipments are still slipping through.

Ubergizmo: Economic incentive can drive a lot of things, so Is there money to be made with recycling?

Elizabeth Grossman: Yes. The biggest incentive behind electronics recycling is the recovery of metals – including precious metals, silver, gold and even platinum. Metals make up over half of the weight in many computers, particularly the older ones now being discarded. These computers also contain quite a lot of copper which is in great demand right now, and commands high prices.

It was mining companies who first got into the electronics recycling business because they figured out it was a lot more profitable – and predictable – to ‘mine’ old circuit boards than it would be to prospect for the same amount of ore and metal in new mines. A pile of old circuit boards has a greater concentration of gold, for example, than does the equivalent amount of ore. But current recycling rates mean that we’re simply throwing away about 90 percent of the billions of pounds of copper and millions of pounds of gold that are in our obsolete computer equipment – copper and gold that is essentially 100 percent reusable.

So yes, there is money to be made in selling used computer equipment, particularly, for its scrap metal value, which recently has been quite high.

Ubergizmo: Wouldn’t the unpredictable volume of “scrap” be a business issue?

Elizabeth Grossman: Yes. Obviously, if you’re a recycler and looking to support and sustain your business by selling materials recovered from used electronics – metals, plastic, glass – you’re going to need a steady supply of these materials to sell to your customers, otherwise business is going to falter. So securing a steady stream of obsolete electronics for recycling is essential to those in the electronics recycling business.

From an electronics recycler’s perspective, encouraging or requiring recycling is good for business. One example: Computer recycling is now mandatory in California, and in 2005, the first year the law was in place, 65 to 70 million pounds of e-waste were diverted from the state’s landfills. That amount is expected to nearly double in 2006. All of that equipment went to recyclers.

Ubergizmo: The problem will onl
y grow as China and India continue to grow, right?

Elizabeth Grossman: Again, the answer is yes. Not only are China and India recipients of huge amount of e-waste exported from other countries, but they are generating growing amounts of their own e-waste. China is expected to surpass Japan – currently the world’s second heaviest user of PCs (the U.S. is number one) – in number of PCs in country by 2007, and India’s high tech sector is growing at 40 percent a year. And I haven’t researched the numbers yet, but think of all the computer equipment used in India-based call centers for U.S. businesses.

Ubergizmo: Does recycling induce some level of pollution?

Elizabeth Grossman: Yes it does – especially the primitive recycling that’s going on in China, India and other developing countries. Where electronics recycling is done in the open, in uncontained workshops with no pollution controls, and without controlled disposal outlets for materials, recycling has created enormous pollution problems. Heavy metals and synthetic chemicals have poisoned local water supplies, contaminated soil and open burning sends toxic particles into the world’s atmosphere.

Recycling under controlled conditions as practiced by many U.S. recyclers still carries some pollution risks and health hazards for recycling workers. Computer and TV monitor screens and connected units – called cathode ray tubes or CRTs for short – contain lead, cadmium, barium and phosphorus that can be released when the glass is cracked or smashed. All of these substances are seriously toxic.

Shards of glass, metal and plastic, and hazardous metals dust and release of flame retardants can pose hazards under the best of circumstances, so a responsible recycler is one that will have taken steps to protect workers and both indoor and outdoor environment from these hazards.

Ubergizmo: What would make recycling easy for consumers?

Elizabeth Grossman: One: If explicit recycling instructions – that includes responsible reuse options – was included in instruction manuals that accompany new equipment. Two: Convenient locations to drop off old equipment for recycling. (In Europe retailers must accept equipment for recycling and in Japan, post offices are used as collection points.) And three: Some kind of system to assure consumers that their chosen recycler is environmentally and socially responsible. To learn this now, you have to know where to look for information or ask a LOT of questions. But easiest of all is if in addition to all of the above, you could simply return all equipment to the manufacturer and know it would be properly handled.

Ubergizmo: According to you, what needs to be done to address the issue?

Elizabeth Grossman: The biggest step in solving the problems now posed by e-waste is to design products that contain fewer toxics and hazardous materials and that are designed to facilitate recycling (easier to take apart to recover the materials for reuse) but also, very importantly, that are designed to last much longer than most equipment now does. Reuse and extending the life of equipment is a crucial step in reducing problems posed by e-waste. (If you have old equipment that is still usable, make sure it goes to a responsible reuse organization or other such outlet – or pass it on to someone who can use it.)

These design improvements need, I think, to be accompanied by some regulation that will make it impossible to landfill or incinerate electronics and illegal to export e-waste for cheap, environmentally unsound recycling. Voluntary measures alone won’t solve the problem, there’s simply too much of this stuff around.

Ubergizmo: Besides your unique book, where can readers find more information about this?

Elizabeth Grossman: Several excellent resources are the Basel Action Network, Computer Take Back Campaign and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. There’s also a wealth of reuse information available through the TechSoup site linked to CompuMentor’s website, and very helpful information at eBay’s ReThink site, which encourages people to resell old IT equipment rather than trashing it.

Ubergizmo: Thank you.

Elizabeth also wrote or contributed to the following articles:

She also recommends the following site: Basel Action Network

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