The Green Penguin – Where Does Your E-Waste Go?

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The article discusses E-Stewards, a new certification program for e-waste recyclers that aims to prevent dumping in landfills and developing countries.

That old CRT monitor the size of a small fridge. The original Apple Newton that kicked the bucket and never woke up. The early-vintage musty VA Linux box – what happens to all of this e-junk after it, if ever, leaves your basement? Ideally e-junk lands at a reputable e-recycler with the equipment to safely recycle and/or dispose of these items that are very difficult to process. What happens frequently is that a less-than-reputable outfit will pack your e-junk onto a container and ship it off to a developing country with lax environmental and labor laws, where it will wreak havoc on the environment and poor people.

How grave is the problem of e-waste? The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) says that it is chronic, with e-waste composing “the fastest growing part of the waste stream”. SVTC says that around 90% of e-waste ends up directly in landfills, with the rest getting mixed treatment in the recycling stream. Of the recycled materials, only 20% goes through what we would call recycling, with a full 80% getting shipped off to developing countries.

What happens in poor countries is prime fodder for investigative journalism. Recyclers there use primitive and dangerous means to extract minimal amounts of valuable materials. Circuit boards are processed with open flames or acid baths, monitors and TVs filled with lead are smashed open with basic tools, plastics are melted with toxic flame retardants. All of this is generally done by poor workers, often including children. The final resting place for most e-waste is a toxic heap of hazardous materials that leach into the ground and air.

E-waste typically gets shipped overseas due to economics. Today's electronics are generally not designed with recycling in mind, with multiple types of metals an plastics constructed in the most efficient manner. Thus, as E-Stewards states, our electronics contain small yet potent amounts of extremely toxic materials, such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. The end result is that e-recycling generally isn't financially viable.

To the rescue is a new certification program for recyclers of e-waste, called E-Stewards. Two groups – the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition – have joined with 32 different e-recyclers to insure that participants will not do any of the following: dump toxic e-waste in developing countries, local landfills and incinerators; use prison labor to process e-waste; or release any private data contained in discarded computers. Some of the founding members include Waste Management, California Electronic Asset Recovery (CEAR), ReLectronics and greencitizen; much of the initiative's funding came from charitable foundations.

E-Stewards Logo

The most important advancement in the E-Stewards initiative is the certification provision. “Most of those companies calling themselves electronics recyclers are scammers,” says Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewards project coordinator at BAN. Certification involves a continuous auditing process by a third party, which is a powerful tool to insure that companies do what they say they will do. Furthermore, certification adds an element of 'insurance' to parties that want to do the right thing and insure that their e-waste is processed in an environmentally and socially positive manner.

The power of certification can be seen in another nascent industry, carbon offsets. Over the past several years, numerous companies that take your money to set up projects that 'offset' your emissions of carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gases). In other words, a company might set up a carbon-emission-free project such as solar installation that reduces the amount of carbon-based energy used in a community. The reduced emissions could then be sold as an offset. Without third-party verification, it was found that organizations were taking multiple credit for the same emissions reductions projects. In order to reduce this uncertainty, the main players in the industry pushed for third-party verification, which has since become the norm. The result has been greater confidence in carbon offsets. Also included in verification of carbon offsets are registries that document particular offsets. The recyclers of e-waste may want to consider such a registry for bulk quantities of e-waste they receive in order to improve transparency and add credibility to their operations.

The development of the E-Stewards program is a big step in the right direction and will likely make an impact on a perceptible fraction of e-waste, i.e. it will be processed in a manner that is safe for both the environment and people. However, in all likelihood E-Stewards will capture e-waste from organizations that seek to do 'the right thing'. But what about those that want to dump their e-waste at minimal cost? Until regulations at all levels of government ban (and enforce) the disposal of e-waste, the bulk of it will still end up in landfills or shipped to developing countries.

The situation in my community of Lansing, Michigan, illustrates what is common in most parts of the country. Although the city offers recycling events to collect e-waste, it is not clear whether putting a monitor, computer or other device in the trash bin is illegal. Although the literature put out by the city states that disposing of recyclables is prohibited, it does not expressly state what exactly is recyclable. Nor do I imagine that the trash collectors pay much attention to the contents of what is disposed. Perhaps such monitoring is challenging, which leaves education is the most powerful tool to get people to do the right thing.

Regardless, I think that communities should go out of their way to say that dumping e-waste in the trash is illegal and has consequences. While one may not be able to catch all illegal dumping, the threat of a consequence will probably get most people to keep their e-waste out of the trash bin. What is needed is an incentive that internalizes, i.e. encourages us to shoulder the burden for, the cost of recycling our devices. If we bring these devices into our lives, we also carry the responsibility of making sure that they do not harm others during their afterlife.

I am curious to know your thoughts. Do you think that the E-Stewards program will make a big difference in how much e-waste actually gets recycled? Do you have experiences in recycling e-waste from your company or your community? Does your community have good policies, education and recycling programs for e-waste, or are they lacking? Have you seen instances of e-waste causing harm to the environment or people? Please send your feedback to me, James Gray, at jgray@linuxjournal.com


Resources

E-Stewards Initiative
http://www.e-stewards.org

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
http://www.etoxics.org

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James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal

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