E-waste increases as technology advances
By Bekky Hobson, CG Contributor
There’s a laptop glowing on Max Fram’s desk. On a shelf below, a blue light blinks indicating his printer is on. His cell phone is going off somewhere, muted by the covers of his bed or possibly a pile of dirty clothes. A handheld video camera sits on his nightstand, full of clips from parties and ski trips. A broken cell phone and an identical broken video camera are unseen, shoved away in a desk drawer.
Eventually, Fram’s electronics will either die or break. And all of it will have to end up somewhere.
“I’ve broken two cell phones in the past two months,” said Fram, 22, a senior at Ohio University studying pre-professional biology. “So now I have a new iPhone. I also had to buy a new video camera a couple months ago because the screen stopped working.”
Greenpeace International states that electronic waste, or E-waste, is now the fastest growing municipal waste (trash, refuse and garbage) in the U.S. E-waste is defined as consumer and business electronics, such as printers, computers, TVs, cable boxes, tablets, remotes and cell phones, that are near the end of their life cycle. It makes up 5 percent of solid waste and there are now 20 to 50 million tons of it every year.
However, our consumption of electronics is not slowing down. A survey done by Market Force, a company that researches consumerism, showed that 100 percent of the 4,200 customers surveyed had purchased an electronic device for themselves or someone else over this past holiday season.
It doesn’t help that electronics are becoming obsolete more quickly than ever before. The past five years have seen four different generations of the MacBook, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that three quarters of computers sold in the U.S. are stockpiled in garages, it also states that more than 4.6 million tons of E-waste ended up in landfills in 2000.
“Often times we see the stuff we have and we think we’ll always have enough,” said Mary Leciejewski, of the Office of Sustainability at Ohio University. “We don’t see the production side. It is important to see the full life cycle of something.”
While some of our E-waste ends up in landfills, the rest of it is shipped overseas to developing nations. All of that waste is then just dumped in a valley or field, where it breaks down improperly and becomes harmful to the environment. Most electronics contain heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. TVs contain cathode ray tubes, which are hard to dispose of due to their high lead and phosphorus content. These chemicals are harmful to human health and can seep into drinking water.
This growing E-waste problem can be alleviated through: advocate groups and smart consumerism; education, reducing, reusing and recycling; and pushing for legislation.
Advocate Groups and Smart Consumerism
In the past few years non-profit organizations, such as the State Electronics Challenge, have been taking action on this issue.
“It’s all to achieve the greater good,” said Lynn Rubinstein, program manager of the State Electronics Challenge. “What you need to do to accomplish that is so easy. They are extremely minor behavioral changes.”
The State Electronics Challenge (SEC) got its first grant in 2006 and it is modeled after the Federal Electronics Challenge, which was started by the EPA. They work internationally to encourage state, local, tribal and regional governments to manage E-waste more responsibly, to buy greener electronics and to reduce the impact of these products during use. Companies sign up as partners and are offered free technical assistance and annual individual sustainability reports. Depending on what activities the companies participate in, they can be offered awards.
One of the sponsors for the SEC is Samsung. Samsung has a list of products under EPEAT, which rates electronics and helps identify the most “green” items. Samsung also self-reports that 100 percent of their products are ENERGY STAR qualified. ENERGY STAR qualified products use less energy and save more money by protecting the environment. It is a joint program of the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy. EPEAT and ENERGY STAR are two programs that consumers can use to identify green electronic products.
Organizations such as Samsung and ENERGY STAR function to benefit consumers. More often than not, people do not realize the impact of their actions.
“I never even really thought about what I would have to do with all that stuff,” said Fram.
Still, it is important that consumers take the initiative to research companies and their products to see if they have these qualifications. One way consumers can do this is by following the guidelines given on the SEC website.
Education and the Three “R’s”
Many universities are among the leaders in disposing of E-waste properly. While some people keep E-waste locked in a closet or throw it out, many donate it or offer it to facilities that dispose of it properly.
Ohio University’s Refuse and Recycling Center has placed E-waste recycling cabinets throughout the campus in places such as the dining hall and computer labs. While the cabinets select smaller items, the center is also willing to accept larger items, like computers. Their website offers more information about going green with recycling.
“Recycling and waste in general should be incorporated into education,” said Rose Keyes, an AmeriCorps volunteer working for Rural Action’s Zero Waste Initiative program.
Rural Action works for social, economic and environmental justice in the Appalachian region of Ohio and their Zero Waste Initiative program is working to create zero waste communities. They advocate for product design that promotes reuse, recycling and repair, instead of just throwing everything away. Keyes visits illegal dump sites throughout the region and documents them.
“Every site has had electronics,” said Keyes, “There are TVs and car stereos and all things of that nature.”
Dumping our E-waste will continue to cause problems and educating communities on the problems is key to fixing this problem. But, people must also be informed of what to do and how to dispose of E-waste properly.
“The kids will hear about it through education, but their families do not necessarily have access,” said Keyes. “They have to save it and then drive it somewhere.”
Solid waste districts are enacted via state laws. Among other things, they are created to coordinate solid waste and recycling management, to reduce reliance on landfills and to protect public health. Many times districts will organize collections that are free and people just have to bring their old electronics to drop-off sites. Citizens can contact the solid waste districts in their region to organize more collections more frequently.
The Athens-Hocking Solid Waste District sets up drives in the spring and fall to collect small appliances, TVs and air conditioners, among other things. All you have to do is drive whatever items you have up to the center on the days listed. For some items there is a small fee.
However, that brings up the issue of where the companies that collect this E-waste dispose of the products, explained Keyes.
The EPA offers a list of certified programs that dispose of electronics properly. The process is intricate. The toxic metals must be taken out and safely disposed of. The plastic and metal parts can be run through grinders, then recycled, typically into building materials.
Even easier solutions are reducing, reusing and recycling. Take care of the electronic products you already have, use your current electronics until they reach the end of life and recycle or donate the ones that are broken.
Consumers can drop off their E-waste and find responsible facilities located near them at websites such as Earth911.com. Old electronics can also be donated and then given to communities in need. Programs like Verizon Communication Inc.’s Hopeline collect old cell phones and refurbish them for domestic violence victims and survivors.
Pushing for Legislation
Education and consumer responsibility are essential, but citizens alone cannot create widespread change.
“Governments should enact more nonprofits and government policies,” said Leciejewski, “The European Union has enacted illegal transport laws since 2000. The U.S. just always seems to be a little bit behind.”
Government action is important, “because without laws people won’t make much of an effort,” said Keyes.
Around 25 states currently have legislation on E-waste and electronic recycling. New York requires by law that citizens recycle their E-waste.
“There is a growing trend for state laws that require manufacturers to take responsibility for the end of life,” said Rubinstein. “More and more manufactures are offering E-recycling.”
Companies that produce these products are starting to be held more accountable for the products they sell. This could help promote the creation of longer-lasting electronics.
The SEC has seen improvements with the companies it works with. Statistics since 2008 show that there has been a dramatic change in the level of activity in their partners.
“The fact that they are reporting is an indication that they are more active,” said Rubinstein. These reports are voluntary and list the electronic use and waste of their partners.
In 2011, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act was introduced which would make it illegal to send toxic E-waste to developing nations. It could take the initiative of the federal government to be the front-runner for this issue.
“More states will pass more stringent laws,” said Keyes, “It will come to a point where we have so much material that we won’t know what to do with it and countries we ship it to, either legally or illegally, won’t want it.”
Advocating to your local, state and federal government will show the importance of this issue and push them to enact laws and create change.
Forward thinking will also breed change. Consumers not only need to be educated and have access, but they need to be compelled to act. All of these combined efforts work towards a more sustainable society.
Our stuff does not just disappear. “All electronic problems are people problems,” said Leciejewski, “It all has to go somewhere.”