Battling the e-Waste Epidemic
October 15, 2009 4:48 PM
When Berkeley graduate Nafisah Ali first started working at GreenCitizen, Inc. four years ago, the term "e-waste" was not in her vocabulary. On the advice of her college counselor, the Physical Biology major took a position at a small eco-friendly San Francisco business and soon found herself on the front lines of the quietly raging battle against toxic electronic waste.
Electronic waste, more commonly referred to as "e-waste," is a mounting issue as electronics reach the end of their useful lives and become obsolete. Bulky televisions, oversized computer monitors, outdated cell phones--all carelessly discarded like an old pair of shoes. Americans discarded approximately 20 million out-of-date computers in 1998, according to a study done by the National Safety Council. Less than decade later, in 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the number had more than doubled.
"This is a type of waste that cannot be buried or burned without consequences," says Cindy Erie, President of E-World Recyclers, a business specializing in the responsible treatment of electronic waste. "If we choose to ignore the problem, we create a huge pollution factor."
Modern electronics are made with many different types of poisonous materials like arsenic, mercury and cadmium, which are hazardous to public health and safety.
A computer monitor contains six to eight pounds of lead," says Ali, 26. "Crush it, and poof! It goes into the air."
Until recent years, there was no regulation of the disposal of electronics. Waste was piled in landfills, incinerated, or openly burned releasing damaging chemicals into the air and atmosphere. It wasn't until 2003 that the California legislature passed The Electronic Waste Recycling Act SB 20, which imposed a recycling fee on certain electronics purchases.
Californians took further action in 2006 with The Global Warming Solutions Act AB 32, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But when that law was passed, the number of EPA approved recyclers in California dropped, leaving Californians with fewer opportunities to recycle their electronics responsibly. "People won't recycle if it's not convenient," says Green Citizens' Ali, "so we aim for convenience and accountability in
Accountability in e-waste recycling has developed into a global battle, as stricter regulations lead to illegal exportation to countries like Nigeria, India and China. Environmental advocacy groups Greenpeace and The Basel Action Network aired specials on 60 Minutes and 20/20 to call public attention to the dumping overseas, but the problem persists.
Seasoned veterans in the e-waste war, GreenCitizen is an EPA approved business providing recycling solutions in the Bay Area since 2002. Free of charge, conscientious consumers can drop off items covered under the Recycling Act SB 20, like televisions, computer monitors, laptops, cell phones and batteries. Other electronics like microwave ovens, printers, and home entertainment equipment are also accepted for a small fee. "Our main goal is to educate the consumers," says Ali, "They know shouldn't throw it away, but they don't know what to do with it."
In some cases, businesses take on an Extended Producer Responsibility, which allows the consumer to return their computers and televisions to the manufacturer. "When producers accept the responsibility for managing end-of-life electronics, they gain the experience needed to improve the sustainability of the product," says Wayne Rifer, Operations Manager for the Green Electronics Council. The Green Electronics Council has established a system called EPEAT, which rates electronics based on their environmental sustainability. The EPEAT system calls for manufacturers to "take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products," says Rifer.
The Green Electronics Council seeks to decrease the use of raw materials like metal and glass, conserve electricity, eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the disposal of hazardous waste by aiding the transition to sustainable electronics. "We need to design computers cradle to cradle, rather than cradle to grave," says Ali.
A great deal of responsibility still lies with the consumer. "The regulations came from advocacy groups; that doesn't mean people understand," says SF Recycling and Disposal's Environmental Manager Brad Drda. "People need to take responsibility for the impacts that are inherent to consumption and support reform that might result in less toxic materials."
It's a shared responsibility between consumers and manufacturers to create and purchase electronics that keep both environmental and public health in mind. According to 20-year veteran Drda, "it just makes no sense to hide poisons in mass-distributed products, then expect the garbage company to clean it up."
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