Electronics Recycling Addresses Growing U.S. Waste Problem

Mark Hall and Lisa Ward walk amid stacks of computers, fax machines and monitors piled in rows 10 feet high. The scene looks like an electronics morgue, brimming with machines that in the 1990s were considered to be on the leading edge of technology but now seem antiquated. Soon, however, they will be resurrected, some as refurbished computers for disadvantaged families, others as recycled glass, metal and plastic.

Nothing will be wasted.

Ward and Hall represent Keep It Green, an Alexandria, Va.-based computer-recycling program that targets what has become a growing monster in the American waste stream: e-waste, also known as hazardous materials contained within obsolete electronics.

Technology, long held up as a panacea for environmental ills, is adding new fuel to a throwaway society. The problem of e-waste stems from the mindset in affluent countries, including the United States, that electronics are disposable. Factors such as costly replacement batteries and the quickening pace with which new models are introduced encourage consumers to justify trashing their obsolete computers, cell phones, personal digital assistants, et cetera, in favor of new models.

According to Dale Kemery, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, e-waste is estimated to comprise between 1 and 4 percent of America’s solid waste stream – a relatively small percentage that, due to materials like mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic contained within electronics, could add up to a major public health issue. Several components of e-waste fall under the EPA’s category of persistent bioaccumulative toxins, or PBTs, which accumulate and eventually concentrate in fatty tissue. Sitting atop the food chain, humans are especially susceptible to the myriad health problems – including nervous system damage, reproductive and developmental problems and cancer – that can result from exposure to PBTs.

Fortunately, the problem of e-waste is avoidable. Many electronics can be recycled, and several organizations and businesses are happy to take them.

“There is a responsible way to dispose of obsolete computer equipment,” said Ward, business development manager at Service Source. “Residents and businesses âÂ?¦ were hungry to find a place to responsibly recycle their computers.”

“I’m not anticipating any great shortage of things to recycle in my lifetime,” Hall added.

Cell phones are another major factor in the e-waste equation. According to the EPA, roughly 130 million cell phones are retired each year. That adds up to about 65,000 tons of toxic waste, and the issue is especially acute in large cities.

In metropolitan areas, cell phones are used in between 65 and 70 percent of households, said Kimberlee Dinn, director of operations and development at EARTHWORKS, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the environment from the destructive impacts of mineral development.

According to Dinn, about 2 percent of cell phones are recycled – a statistic she calls “pretty dismal.” An estimated 500 million cell phones are sitting around unused, and Dinn says people are not sure what to do with them. She says the wireless industry could make greater efforts to cut down on e-waste from cell phones, and suggests labeling cell phones as recyclable and creating an exchange program for consumers who upgrade their phones.

“Most people upgrade their cell phones every 12 to18 months,” said Dinn. “[The wireless industry is] not making [cell phone recycling] information readily available.”

Between 40 and 50 percent of cell phones can be put back into use, most of which end up in developing countries in Asia and Latin America. If the phones cannot be brought back to working order, the components can be recycled. The metals are especially sought after, and reducing the need for mining is a tangential benefit of recycling and reusing cell phones.

“Hard rock mining is our country’s single largest toxic polluter, by far,” said Dinn. “That land can never be reclaimed.”

Mining effects include acid mine drainage, which contaminates water, and habitat destruction. To put the cell-phone-mining footprint in perspective, Dinn say if the 130 million cell phones trashed this year had been recycled, about 202,000 ounces of gold would have been recovered.

Erin McGee, spokesperson for the Washington-based Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, says the wireless industry is cutting down on e-waste by making phones smaller and phasing out toxic materials, like lead and cadmium. CTIA is also working on standards for recycling and reusing cell phones and related materials and spreading the word that wireless vendors and manufacturers want to take back old phones.

“[Wireless manufacturers are] maximizing the use of recycled materials. They’re trying to figure out âÂ?¦ ‘Can this device be reconditioned or refurbished to be used again?’ ” said McGee. “If the phone is at the end of its life, they are focused on disposing of the toxic materials.”

Overall, Dinn is optimistic that e-cycling has great potential, it’s just a matter of getting the word out to consumers.

“Most Americans are good at recycling,” she said. “If people knew that cell phones could be recycled, they would do it âÂ?¦ they’ll do the right thing.”

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