Grappling with detritus from an electronic age
by Tim Johnson - Free Press Staff Report, Burlington Free Press
11 June 2006 –
One of the fastest growing waste streams in Vermont and across the country -- old computers and other electronics -- contains toxics that nobody wants to see trickling into a real stream.
The business of recycling and harvesting electronic components is also growing fast, spawning cautionary tales typically illustrated by photos of morose children standing in the Third World dumps, surrounded by heaps of computer junk exported from the United States.
As with many businesses, there are practitioners who are up-front and environmentally responsible, and there are practitioners who are, well, like "Tom."
"My name is Tom and I'd like to inquire about purchasing large amounts of computer scrap all sold as is," read an e-mail message that was received in Vermont on May 17. "Tom" said he was looking for "any amount which makes a full container load of equipment ... container supplied by me. supplier loads the container."
Tom's e-mail address was through a Web site with a phone number out of Brooklyn, N.Y. Tom did not respond to questions e-mailed by The Burlington Free Press.
What becomes of -- what should become of -- a computer that is thrown away? The question grows in urgency as rates of obsolescence accelerate. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average lifespan of a personal computer fell from 4.5 years in 1992 to two years in 2005.
The most environmentally friendly answer is that workable components will be reused or repaired; that precious metals (such as gold, palladium) will be salvaged; and that toxics -- in particular, the lead that's contained in the glass of CRTs (cathode ray tubes, as in computer monitors or TVs) will be separated and recycled or legally disposed of.
The good news is that this is what happens to a good share of the electronics that people in Vermont get rid of through their local waste districts.
What share of Vermont's e-waste winds up in the hands of unscrupulous exporters and ultimately atop waste piles in Nigeria or China? That's anybody's guess.
A 2004 report by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation estimated that 23 percent of the state's discarded computers were collected for reuse or recycling by solid waste districts, nonprofits and private businesses, including Recycle North in Burlington and the Computer Barn in Barre. In 2005, according to state statistics, towns and waste districts collected 392 tons of electronic waste (up from 245 tons in 2004) through programs charging recycling fees of $5 to $15 per unit.
Much of the e-waste collected in Vermont and elsewhere in New England winds up at Good Point Recycling in Middlebury. Good Point takes anything with a cord and charges by the pound.
Fees pay the wages of a dozen employees, who check out which parts are usable, which aren't, and sort it all across 15,000 square feet of warehouse space burgeoning with shipping containers of hard drives, monitors, cables, mouses, control boards, and so on.
What happens to it all? Some components are sold on eBay. Unusable CRTs are sent to domestic recyclers who put the leaded glass into new CRTs. Usable CRTs -- depending on the brand -- may be exported to Asian factories that rely on used parts to assemble TVs and computers that are marketed locally or repackaged and sold as new.
Presiding over all this is Robin Ingenthron, who founded Good Point in 2003 and was active in an Addison County electronics recycling program before that. Ingenthron cut his teeth at Electronicycle, a publicly contracted electronics-recycling company in the state that's on the cutting edge of the field in this country -- Massachusetts.
Massachusetts gave a boost to electronic recycling when it banned CRTs from landfills. California has a similar ban. Vermont does not (although it does prohibit such disposal of mercury-containing liquid crystal display monitors).
Two bills that would have banned the landfilling of electronics and imposed fees on manufacturers to cover recycling costs died in the Vermont Legislature this year. One of the Senate sponsors, Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, said she plans to try again next session.
Ingenthron contends that Vermont is second only to Massachusetts in the amount of electronics recycled per capita. He believes that Vermont's system -- regular collections by the waste districts at a modest fee -- is particularly effective. He cites a 1998 state survey that found that "80 percent of the people would prefer to pay $5 to recycle or reuse than to throw it away for free."
Gold -- in chips and circuit boards -- is one of the prizes in old computers. The older the computer, the more gold it's likely to contain, Ingenthron said, adding that Asia leads the world in gold consumption per capita, and that e-scrap is richer in gold and other metals than mined ore. How is the plated gold removed? "There is a cheap and not very effective way to get the gold out," Ingenthron said, "via 'aqua regia' acids -- extremely poisonous."
If a boatload of computer waste arrives in Asia or Africa, the value of precious metals alone, plus a few salvageable parts, can cover the whole expense. Junk -- such as unusable CRTs -- is thrown on a dump or into a river.
A principal source of e-waste exports is the United States, according to the Basel Action Network, a Seattle nonprofit that has been campaigning vigorously for years against the dumping of hazardous waste in the developing world. BAN estimates that more than half the electronic waste collected in the United States is exported and states in a recent report, "The Digital Dump": "The e-waste recycling and disposal operations found in China, India and Pakistan are extremely polluting and likely to be very damaging to human health. Examples include open burning of plastic waste, exposure to toxic solders, river dumping of acids and widespread general dumping."
Besides lead, the EPA lists cadmium, mercury, chromium and "brominated flame retardants" in plastic casings as "contaminants of concern in old electronics." Cell phones also may contain arsenic and beryllium.
None of these is a healthy addition to air or groundwater, in Vermont, Nigeria or anywhere else. The 2004 Vermont report concludes:
"While the state cannot point to data showing significant environmental impact from the disposal of electronics, the potential exists for some air and groundwater contamination from landfilling or incinerating these devices."
Contact Tim Johnson at 660-1808 or email@example.com
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