E-Waste Not: Recycling Our High-Tech Cast-Offs

By Goffman, Ethan | E Magazine, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview

E-Waste Not: Recycling Our High-Tech Cast-Offs


Goffman, Ethan, E Magazine


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Cell phones, TVs and other electronics break or become obsolete at an ever-accelerating pace. And we've got the landfills to prove it. According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson, "In 2007, discarded TVs, computers, peripherals (including printers, scanners, faxes), mice, keyboards and cell phones totaled about 2.25 million tons." And that number is on a steady climb.

The Toxins Inside

These electronics contain substances that pose serious health risks once they're loosed on the environment, specifically heavy metals and chemicals. Lead, one heavy metal, is found in "almost every electrical product" according to Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewardship Policy Director at Basel Action Network (ban.org). She adds that a lead portion "the size of a pinhead can cause brain damage in children." Mercury, contained in LCD screens, has extensive neurotoxic effects. Cadmium can cause fever and respiratory illness.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are odorless, tasteless chemicals found in many electronics that accumulate in the environment and in the human body. PBDEs' long-term effects may include neurotoxicity, thyroid disease and possible mental and physical impairments in young children.

And electronic waste in landfills poses a long-term risk that such substances "could leach into groundwater, ecosystems, and vegetation," and further harm animals and humans, according to John Shegerian, Chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI, electronicre cyclers.com).

Recycling Rises

Recycling electronics yields valuable materials that don't need to be mined, saves energy and creates jobs. The EPA reports that one million cell phones translate to "35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium." Meanwhile, "Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year." Yet currently the U.S. properly recycles only 15% to 20% of e-waste, with "80% being shipped off our shores or [left] in landfills" says Shegerian.

With e-waste's steady climb, states are increasing standards. In late 2004, when ERI began operations, only three states had e-waste laws. Now, 25 do, Shegerian says. Montgomery County, Maryland, began an e-waste recycling program in 2000, recycling 10 tons a month, a number that has swelled to 150 tons currently, according to Peter Karasik, who manages the program. …

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