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E-Waste is the Problem: What's the Solution?

E-waste is a problem that is as pervasive as the electronics that cause it. For every cell phone, PDA, iPod and laptop or desktop computer, there are hunks of heavy metals and carcinogenic toxins that don’t belong in a landfill (where they can leach into the groundwater, soil or air) or in contact with people (where they can do the same, and to our bodies, too) as they wait in a “to-be-recycled” heap. While the best way to avoid e-waste may be to cut the nasties out of the production all together — something that the WEEE and RoHS Directives aim to do — this is an evolving (and slow) process, and is something we’ll address further later this week. Until then, have a look at some of the things — good and bad — being done to address this problem, from the national/international scale all the way down to you at home.

1) The Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) has released a document [www.treehugger.com] that has the potential to pave the way for federal legislation on recycling television- and computer-related e-waste. TV collection and recycling would be conducted by a (to be named) third party organization and be supported by a consumer fee when you purchase a new set. Once a significant number of so-called “legacy” sets are recovered, the fee would expire. Producers of IT equipment would fall under a different shell; they would have to implement a program to collect and recycle their own products at no cost to the consumer. Read more about this interesting program here [www.eia.org] [PDF].
2) On an even larger scale, the United Nations is moving forward on developing a worldwide standard for safe recycling and disposal of e-waste that they’re calling Solving the E-waste Problem [www.treehugger.com], or StEP. The UN’s efforts will also help put the kabosh on the illegal trade and backroom deals where countries, such as Japan, are trying to dump their E-waste in other countries as part of international business deals.
3) There’s been a slew of ideas recently on how to address the growing, global e-waste problem, from national legislation to a bargaining chip in international trade agreements [www.treehugger.com]. Here in the US, Mike Thompson (D-Calif) has proposed a national ‘e-Fee’ on electronic devices. This model is called the Advance Recovery Fee (ARF), and it will cost consumers about $10 per device that they will pay up front to recycle the equipment. States and cities have been going in the opposite direction, most preferring the manufacturer responsibility model, where the vendor is billed for the processing fees. Obviously, this is a difference of opinion, and some states like Montana are already going the extra yard, with proposed legislation to get the e-Fee back that you pay to the Feds. Elsewhere, Japan has its own solution as well: to use junk to barter in international trade agreements. Think something along the lines of, “You want that new Honda plant? Take 50 tons of old computers…”
4) Closer to home, there are several organizations and lots of considerations [www.treehugger.com] to ponder before recycling your computer yourself. One of the best ways to get clean recycling is simple: just ask questions. A reputable recycler should be able to tell you where hardware is sent, and if the company exports or uses prison labor. The recycler should also be able to tell you how it handles data destruction; you’ll want the recycler or reuse organization to wipe the hard drive for you so any personal information doesn’t end up where it doesn’t belong. If you are donating your equipment to a reuse organization, ask if equipment is tested before it is passed on for donation and if the company only ships working equipment. Ask who their recipient organizations are. If the answer to any of these questions is, “We don’t know,” or, “We can’t tell you,” it may be time to send your equipment elsewhere.
5) Recognizing that there may come a time when you will have an extra computer or two lying around (since 75 percent of used computers are currently stockpiled in storage — read, your basement), we came up with two ways to responsibly dispose of your old gear: for joy and for profit [www.treehugger.com]. Turns out they’re both satisfying and even kinda fun.
6) Individual companies are also getting in the game: Dell will phase out brominated fire retardants and PVC by 2009 [www.treehugger.com] and will recycle any Dell-branded product for free [www.treehugger.com]; Hewlett Packard’s goal [www.treehugger.com] is to have recycled 1 billion pounds (cumulatively) of electronic products by the end of this year (and have also agreed to nix the nasty fire retardants, too [www.treehugger.com]); Apple will recycle any potential e-waste [www.treehugger.com] and has a specific iPod recycling program [www.treehugger.com], but lags behind in recycling and toxicity [www.treehugger.com] according to some.
7) Want to learn more? We recommend checking out High Tech Trash [www.treehugger.com], a book that gives a thorough overview to the full range of product life cycle issues for consumer electronics, with a focus on the human toxicity issues. Though the book is a bit light on new solutions, leaving the reader without examples of design principles, products, or business models that take us in a better direction, it serves as a good introductory overview for us citizen activists.