Where does all the e-waste go?
by Kathryn Mathieson, Barre Montpelier Times Argus (VT)
4 May 2006–
Do you have an old TV, computer, or monitor in your home? What about in your workplace – is there a closet full of dot matrix printers and archaic word processors?
If the answer is yes, then you are not alone. What was once a stream of e-waste has become a torrent. E-waste, or electronic waste, is defined as computers, televisions, VCRs, cell phones, printers, copiers and other electronic equipment, which have been discarded, have become obsolete, have ceased to function, or are no longer wanted. Sound familiar?
We love our computers. They're everywhere: in our schools, our homes, our offices, our businesses, and even in our cars. A quest for efficiency in a fast-paced world, the lure of slick marketing aimed at our disposable income, the production of millions of new high-tech products – iPods, cell phones and personal computers – and the World Wide Web are the driving forces behind our love affair with electronics. We want new computers every year or two. VHS is almost a thing of the past – more and more video stores are divesting themselves of their video tapes and going strictly DVD. What about cell phones? Remember when pay phones were the way it was done?
Yet if we take some time out from our computer-assisted productivity and efficiency to ponder the end results of the production of all these machines, the picture is not so pretty.
More than 3.2 million tons of electronic waste is disposed into landfills each year, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Nationwide, in 2001, only 11 percent of personal computers retired in the United States were recycled. According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Vermonters discarded more than 4,000 tons of electronic waste in the year 2000. Of this, only 10 percent was recovered.
As of 2005, more than 100 million cell phones were discarded in the United States, while about 300 million personal computers will become obsolete in the next five years, according to the National Safety Council.
In addition to filling our landfills, electronic products typically contain lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, polyvinylchloride, mixed plastics, flame retardants, and other hazardous substances known to be a threat to health and the environment.
The problem is also a global one, with tons of e-waste being shipped to countries such as China where low-wage workers literally break the products down (oftentimes with their bare hands) in order to reclaim small amounts of precious metals such as gold and copper. Not only do the people involved face toxic threats from hazardous materials that are released into the air, but these contaminants end up in the water supply.
So where does the responsibility lie? Some would say that the companies who manufacture and profit from the electronic products should share the cost of collection and recycling, rather than having the cost borne by the consumer or the government. The concept of product stewardship — or shared responsibility by all parties involved in the design, manufacture, sale and use of a product for the environmental impacts of that product over its entire useful life – has the potential to revolutionize how we manage waste in this country.
A bill requiring producer responsibility for waste electronics was introduced last year in the Vermont Legislature and is being looked at again this year. Vermont's legislators are examining House Bill H.700 and the parallel Senate Bill S.270 to see if manufacturers should bear the financial responsibility for collection, reuse and recycling of the electronic devices they produce. Currently, the costs are being shouldered by consumers and local government.
"If manufacturers share the responsibility for recycling their products then they have an immediate incentive to design products that are easily recycled and less toxic. The consumer shares the cost of that innovation when they purchase a product," says Liz Helrich, Field Programs coordinator for the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.
The proposed bills call for the Agency of Natural Resources to adopt a plan so that by July 1, 2018, 100 percent of covered electronic devices sold in Vermont will be recovered, reused or recycled. Prior to 2018, manufacturers will be required to label devices with information about how to reuse or recycle the device.
CVSWMD collects electronics for recycling year-round at its Barre Town Recycling Depot during regular hours. (Call for details on special collections in Hardwick, Tunbridge, and Bradford). Collection fees are modest and help to cover the costs of proper recycling of the metals and reusable parts contained within common electronics. A TV will cost you $10; a microwave $5. All the electronics collected are recycled or reused domestically by responsible and reputable companies.
Options for reuse include:
- See if local non-profits and schools need your computer. Search the District's Reuse Business Database for other reuse outlets.
- Sell your computer to a business that refurbishes them for resale. Or advertise it on bulletin boards in area businesses or in the classifieds of local papers.
- Donate cell phones to organizations that can use them, such as battered women's shelters and social service agencies.
- For a list of retail establishments in Vermont that have drop-off boxes for old cell phones and rechargeable batteries, check out www.rbrc.org.
- Be sure and check out the CVSWMD's online A-Z Resource Guide to Waste Reduction and Resource Handling at www.cvswmd.org for more ideas on what to do with e-waste.
For more information about the House and Senate bills, contact Drew Hudson at VPIRG at 223-5221, ext. 4787.
For more information about regular District electronics collections, contact Liz Helrich at the CVSWMD –
229-9383, ext. 17 or go to www.cvswmd.org.
Kathryn Mathieson is the CVSWMD communications coordinator.
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