With the constant availability of new gadgets and gizmos for consumers to use, it is not surprising that the cycle of "out with the old, in with the new" has made electronic materials that fastest growing commodity in the waste stream. To accommodate this process, electronics recycling programs have been created across the country, allowing for simpler and safer disposal of these items, such as cell phones, computers and PDAs. Such items usually contain substances - lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame-retardants - that are necessary for the electronics to operate, but require special handling when consumers dispose of them. Some recyclers have acted outside the law .
Unfortunately, not all of the electronic material collected is processed properly. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) discovered just that in a report last year that revealed not all recyclers are operating within the limits of the law. In fact, the report illustrates that for the past several years, some recyclers have been sending their cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions and monitors to developing countries without notifying authorities, despite the EPA's CRT rule.
News of these recycling violations has made waves in the waste management community - and beyond. In fact, 60 Minutes has been following this story since the GAO report came out in late 2008, and recently re-aired its segment on the illegal e-waste trade. Sending e-waste to developing countries, especially CRT-containing televisions and computer monitors that contain, on average, about four to eight pounds of lead, could endanger unprotected workers and surrounding communities who are inadvertently exposed to these toxins as the e-waste is broken down. Making matters worse, these countries may also lack laws protecting workers and the environment from exposure to hazardous materials.
Industry taking responsibility will help.
According to the 60 Minutes piece, 130,000 computers are recycled in the U.S. every day. This particularly highlights the need for greater responsibility among the waste industry, which handles these materials on a daily basis. WM Recycle America, the largest residential recycler in North America, does not ship electronic materials such as circuit boards, cathode ray tube glass and other items that contain lead and other hazardous materials to developing countries. In fact, since 2002 WM Recycle America adopted the practice of not shipping these restricted items to non-Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and EU countries and in accordance to Basel Treaty.
In September 2008, WM Recycle America built on this corporate practice by committing to adopt the Basel Action Network's (BAN) Electronics Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship for the dismantling and recycling of electronics waste. The Pledge applies to restricted materials such as circuit boards, cathode ray tube glass and other items that contain lead and hazardous materials. In addition WM Recycle America has committed to certify its facilities under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's R2 process.
What can be done to make e-cycling safe and legal?
But there are many others who can help ensure that e-waste is disposed of properly. Namely, consumers and businesses should make an effort to recycle their old electronics. The most recent EPA statistics show that while 2.25 million tons of electronics are generated each year, only 18 percent are collected for recycling. A number of electronics manufacturers are assuming responsibility for the end-of-life maintenance of their products. Many have already created e-cycling programs and held drives to collect old electronics. Earth911 provides a comprehensive list of manufacturer-sponsored programs. Unless these programs are supported by recyclers through environmental protections and oversight, the incentive for consumers and businesses to recycle their e-waste remains low.
All of us have a role in getting things right.
WM Recycle America welcomed the GAO report as it indicated there is a need for a strategy at the federal level to provide a framework for handling of electronic waste. This framework could be complemented by each State, providing standardization while allowing the States the flexibility to implement more stringent programs if desired.
Clearly there are numerous parties involved - recyclers, businesses, consumers and government officials - who must work in tandem to make sure electronics are handled and disposed of safely in this country. E-waste is one of the fastest growing contributors to the global waste stream. It's our collective responsibility to recycle these products and not let them fall into other countries' hands to damage local communities and their surrounding environments
Additional e-waste posts.
An e-Waste Nightmare in Ghana (Video)
E-waste In India: A Growing Industry & Environmental Threat ...
E-waste Recycling is Serious Health Threat in China
e-Waste Expected to Plateau by 2015
Indiana Approves Major Statewide e-Waste Recycling Program ...
Could e-Waste Offsets Be a Solution to Toxic Dumps?
European E-waste, Labeled 'Second-Hand,' Is Unloaded in Ghana ...