The problem of e-waste is as wide as the world and as close as individual choice

The United States produces more electronic waste than any country on Earth yet has no national laws on how to dispose of it and no plants to recycle it.

The average American uses 24 electronic products, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. This can include cell phones, e-readers, computers, televisions, video games, and even hearing aids. In 2010 — and the amount is increasing rapidly every year — the United Sates generated 2.44 million tons of electronic waste, known as e-waste, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But less than a quarter of it was recycled.

Recycling e-waste is essential for two reasons — it contains toxic substances like mercury, lead, cadmium, and beryllium. It also contains precious and special metals like gold, silver, platinum, and palladium.

Regulation is what drives recycling. According to Solving the E-waste Problem, an international initiative known as StEP, lack of regulation has significantly hindered recycling rates.

In the United States, which has no national regulations, about half of the states have adopted laws requiring e-waste recycling. The most successful — both Minnesota and Oregon collect over 6 pounds per person annually — make collection convenient and cost free and have penalties for putting electronics in landfills.

New York has a law — The Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act — passed in 2010 that went into effect in 2011 — which does those things. The month it was enacted, we wrote in this space, praising the initiative.

As StEP recommends, the law has a disposal ban — the ban first applied to manufacturers, progressed to retailers, and then to businesses and municipalities, and, finally, as of Jan. 1, 2015, just over a year ago, the ban was extended to individuals and households — electronic waste cannot be buried in landfills.

This is essential for protecting our Earth, now and in future generations, from being poisoned.  Just one example: The amount of mercury that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen, according to Stanford University research, is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond levels that are safe to drink. Spilled or buried, mercury can move up the food chain and affect public health.

New York’s law requires manufacturers of what it terms “covered electronic equipment” or “CEE” to establish a convenient system for the collection, handling, and recycling or reuse of electronic waste.  CEE includes computers and their accessories, such as keyboards, monitors, and printers; televisions; and “small electronic equipment” like video recorders and game consoles and portable digital music players.

The law established statewide collection standards that increased gradually over the first three years, and it set manufacturer-specific acceptance standards based on market share, or how much a particular manufacturer sells. Companies like Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, and RCA have to recycle the same amount of material, per pound, that they sell each year in New York State.

Many of these manufacturers worked together and with recycling companies, which in turn worked with municipalities, to collect electronic waste. Direct mail-back programs were also instituted.

We lauded this law at the time it was implemented because it shifts the disposal costs from the consumers to the manufacturers, which, we said, should lead them to design electronic equipment that is easier and less costly to recycle. That, we wrote, will mean more re-usable parts and fewer toxins for the Earth.

While the intention of the law was good, it needs to be amended to be effective. As we listened last week to Knox Town Board members talk with disgruntled citizens, we could clearly see the problem. The Knox transfer station, like those of other municipalities in our area, will no longer accept electronic waste. The town has no one to take it.

The fear now is that citizens will toss their unwanted waste by the side of the road or will hide their e-waste in their garbage where its toxins will leach into the earth.

A major problem is that, once manufacturers have met their performance standard — and for many, that’s just partway through the year — they no longer finance the recycling. The financial burden has been shifted back to local municipalities.

The New York Product Stewardship Council has drafted amendments to the law that we wholeheartedly endorse. If amended, the law would direct the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to set performance requirements based on data from the two previous years, and it would clarify that manufacturers are required to provide year-round consistent support for collection sites included in their plans, regardless of whether their performance targets were met.

The problem, of course, is bigger than New York — it’s as wide as the world. And it is also as close as individual choice.

If we are, indeed, part of a global community, we should care that, since our country does not have an integrated smelter, the vast majority of our e-waste, according to StEP, is sent to developing countries like India, Pakistan, and China, where the cost of labor is low and the environmental regulations are not so stringent. There, the precious metals are extracted as human health is endangered.

So, even if we’re dutifully recycling here at home, we’re poisoning other parts of the world.

A chemical process that recovers valuable materials from obsolete wiring boards has recently been developed by Advanced Technology Materials Inc. in Wilmington, Delaware in what it calls “green chemistry” technology. We need solutions like this hydrometallurgical processing, which are environmentally safe and cost effective.

In short, we need federal regulations and nationwide solutions to solve the important, and largely ignored, problem of electronic waste. Failing that, we’ll push for amending the state law so that manufacturers bear their fair share of recycling costs and work to develop products that will reduce the problem in the first place.

As individuals — other than lobbying our state leaders as the Knox Town Board has done — we can make individual choices that are responsible. Before we buy a new electronic gadget, let’s ask ourselves if we really need it. If we do, let’s look for a responsible way to dispose of the old one.

One shining local example of a place we might look is the GE Elfun Computer Rehab of Schenectady. Through the Elfun program, a few dozen retired General Electric workers volunteer their time and expertise to refurbish computers and then donate them to not-for-profit groups and schools that can’t afford new ones.

In the past 20 years, the group has donated more than 11,000 computer systems to over 1,200 organizations.

That may be just a drop in the overflowing bucket of electronic waste, but it is a stellar contribution nevertheless. It helps bridge the digital divide in our country, where the wealthy have gadgets to waste and the poor cannot afford to enter a world where communication and even survival is determined through electronics.

And, it also serves as a model for the best way to deal with e-waste: Repair, refurbish, and re-use. Electronic devices should be designed to encourage this, which saves on manufacturing costs and is a far more efficient use of resources.

Our future depends on it.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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