Computing the Damage

October 1, 2002

9 Min Read
Computing the Damage

Kim A. O'Connell

Advocates have rallied against the hazards of electronic waste (e-waste) for years. Worldwide, electronics production is the fastest-growing manufacturing industry. And because of the rapid perceived obsolescence of such products, e-waste also is the fastest-growing waste stream. Approximately 20 million computers became obsolete in 1998, with a volume of about 5 to 7 million tons, according to one report. The United States itself generates more electronic waste than any other nation.

With growing concern about the effects of e-waste on both our environment and that of other nations where this trash often is exported, communities are developing e-waste management proposals. But as countries continue to innovate and the mountain of high-tech trash continues to grow, have we done enough to address the wave of electronics that is about to crash into our waste handling systems?

Toxic Trash

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., only about 14 percent of e-waste was reused or recycled in 1998, while most was disposed of or remains in storage. A provocative report, “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia,” estimates that between 1997 and 2007, more than 500 million computers will become obsolete, resulting in 6.32 billion pounds of plastic and 1.58 billion pounds of lead, among other materials.

E-waste contains more than 1,000 different substances, according to the report, which was released last February. Significant amounts of gold, silver, copper, steel, aluminum, wire, cable and other resources can be extracted from computers and recycled. But many other substances are toxic, including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium, and flame retardants that create dioxin-like emissions when burned. About 70 percent of the heavy metals (mercury and cadmium) in landfills come from electronic waste. Consumer electronics make up 40 percent of the lead in landfills, the report states. These toxins can cause brain damage, allergic reactions and cancer.

Others have issued similar estimates. In its annual “Vital Signs” report, the Worldwatch Institute, Washington, D.C., focused on the increasing volume of toxic technology. In 1997, the report states, more than 2.9 million tons of electronic waste were landfilled.

“More than 80 percent of the world's hazardous waste is produced in the United States and other industrial countries,” says Michael Renner, who co-authored the report. “The international community has struggled to devise and enforce rules to reduce cross-border movements in the hope of preventing poor countries from being turned into dumping grounds for the wastes of the rich.”

PDAs and Peripherals

Computers and other large electronic equipment are not the only culprits. INFORM, a New York City-based research organization, released a study in May that says that because cellular phones are used for only 18 months before they are discarded, by 2005 about 130 million cell phones will be retired per year. Most of these will be dumped into junk drawers, but eventually, they all will enter the waste stream.

Similar problems are posed by other small electronic devices, such as pagers, pocket personal computers (PCs), personal digital assistants (PDAs), MP3 players, and computer peripherals. “Because these devices are so small, their environmental impacts might appear to be minimal,” says Bette Fishbein, INFORM senior fellow. “But the growth in their use has been so enormous that the environmental and public health impacts of the waste they create are a significant concern.”

Fishbein notes that cell phones include a number of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc, as well as flame retardants. Manufacturers in Europe and Japan already have eliminated lead and brominated flame retardants from their electronic products. Australia, for example, has implemented a nationwide take-back program for recovering and recycling wireless phones. Japan is developing design guidelines that will result in recyclable electronics with less toxic materials. The United States, in contrast, has begun to develop alternatives to these products, but progress has been slow, Fishbein says.

Federal Response

The EPA has been monitoring the growing e-waste stream. The agency also maintains a website that discusses ways to reduce e-waste — such as upgrading and keeping computers longer than usual — or recycle whole computers or parts, such as spent rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries. Last October, the EPA's Region III joined environmental agencies in the Mid-Atlantic region as well as the electronics industry to kick-off an electronics recycling partnership to facilitate the reuse and recycling of old computer equipment and televisions.

Nevertheless, the EPA also acknowledges that e-waste exporting is a problem, saying a “significant portion” of obsolete electronics is exported. “No one has a good grasp of the numbers,” EPA Scientist Robert Tonetti told The New York Times earlier this year.

The “Exporting Harm” report states that 50 to 80 percent of the electronic waste collected in the United States for “recycling” is sent to China, India, Pakistan or other developing countries. Often, these products are disassembled or reused under unregulated and toxic conditions.

“They call this recycling, but it's really dumping by another name,” says Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN), Seattle. The report was prepared by BAN and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, San Jose, Calif., in conjunction with Greenpeace China, Hong Kong; the Society for Conservation and Protection of the Environment, Karachi, Pakistan; and Toxics Link India, New Delhi.

Even more troubling to some is that this summer, the agency proposed excluding cathode ray tubes (CRTs) from the definition of solid waste to streamline Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) management requirements for used CRTs and glass removed from CRTs sent for recycling. The EPA also is clarifying the status of used CRTs sent for reuse, and the agency is aiming to streamline management requirements for used mercury-containing equipment by adding it to the federal list of universal wastes. The proposed rule, in essence, would deregulate CRT collection, handling and processing from the hazardous waste regulatory infrastructure.

This could open a loophole that increases hazardous waste exports to developing nations, opponents say. “[The rule will] provide openings to sweep America's toxic waste problems out the back door … using the pretext of promoting recycling,” BAN's Puckett says. “It comes as a shock to see the agency turn around and actually propose rules designed to exempt hazardous electronic wastes from the few export rules now possible under national law.”

Conversely, manufacturing representatives say that the proposed rule will foster an e-cycling infrastructure. “This proposed rule is a key step in the right direction,” the Electronic Industries Alliance, Arlington, Va., has said in a prepared statement. “By removing used electronics containing CRTs and mercury lamps from certain hazardous waste regulations when they are recycled, the EPA is providing a strong economic incentive that will promote the development of more collection and recycling opportunities for used electronics within the United States.”

At press time, the EPA still was considering comments on its CRT proposal.

Front-End Fees

Electronics manufacturers, environmental groups and legislators agree that more needs to be done on the front-end of an electronic product's life to prepare for its disposal or recycling on the back-end. Representatives from various stakeholder groups that participated in the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), which began in April 2001, have agreed to work toward a financing system that will include the costs of managing used electronics in the overall purchase price of those products.

Scott Cassel of the Product Stewardship Institute, Lowell, Mass., which is coordinating state and local government input in NEPSI, has said, “This agreement represents a major step toward providing relief from the financial burden imposed on state and local governments that must now manage used electronic products.”

Furthermore, several states, including North Carolina, Massachusetts and California, have proposed legislation to establish front-end fees on CRT monitors and televisions. California is considering two bills, for example, that propose an advance recycling fee of up to $30 on CRT monitors and televisions sold at retail stores.

Yet an online poll commissioned by the Electronic Industries Alliance has suggested that such legislation would discourage consumers from buying electronic products. The survey showed that 74 percent of those polled would be less likely to buy a computer if they had to pay a $20 fee to cover recycling.

Front-end-fee advocates immediately responded. “When the public is made aware of the seriousness of the problems associated with e-waste … they are supportive of having the cost of appropriately recycling computers and TVs included in the cost of the products,” says Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, Sacramento.

At press time, California Senate Bill 1523 had been adopted on the final day of the legislative session and was awaiting the governor's review. The measure, if signed, would establish a CRT device recycling goal of 25 percent by 2004, 50 percent by 2007, and 75 percent by 2010.

In July, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., also introduced a national bill that would place a $10 fee on CRTs and computers. The fee would be distributed by the EPA to local governments for recycling. Additionally, the bill would require the agency to study the computer waste quantities being generated now and in the future, as well as the amount being exported out of the country. The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, where it remained unconsidered at press time.

“The availability of government funding has been critical to building our country's recycling collection system, driving investment in new recycling technologies, and keeping the public engaged and educated about the importance and process for recycling,” says Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, Washington, D.C. “There is an urgency to begin now to build an infrastructure for the e-waste that our country's citizens are generating.”

Proactive Steps

Meantime, several companies have taken steps to curb the proliferation of e-waste. For example, Waste Management's subsidiary, Phoenix-based Recycle America, has announced a nationwide recycling program. In August, Recycle America's Asset Recovery Group launched eCycling, a national network of drop-off centers, collection depots and regional processing centers operated by Waste Management and affiliated companies.

In its pledge, Recycle America asserted that all electronics from residential and municipal sources would be domestically processed. Only export markets that are subject to an environmental, health and safety audit would be used.

Dell Computers Corp., Austin, Texas, also has announced a take-back program for its outdated computers, in which consumers would foot the bill for shipping.

Yet this program has been criticized by e-cycling advocates as not going far enough. The Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE), Austin, staged a protest against the company in July, saying that Dell had not taken full responsibility for its computers; TCE wanted Dell to provide free take-back of its computers.

Manufacturers, government agencies and recycling advocates are taking steps toward recognizing that e-waste is a rapidly growing problem with toxic consequences. But are these efforts going far enough, fast enough?

While reports are written and debated, and legislation is proposed and ignored, only a handful of companies currently have efforts to be responsible while millions more computers, cell phones and other electronics continue to head for U.S. landfills or unregulated dumps abroad. To keep up, those who create, regulate and manage trash will have to work harder to find common ground, and they will have to do it fast. Technology will not wait.

Kim A. O'Connell is an Arlington, Va.-based contributing editor.

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