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January 2004

Electronics Recycling Heats Up as E-Waste Increases

Take a look around. If you’re like most people today, chances are you’re surrounded by technology. Everywhere we look there are TVs, computers, printers and monitors, and electronic products of all kinds. At a time when growing numbers of electronic products are replaced and discarded every year, the safe and proper disposal of these unwanted products has created a growing problem with far reaching implications.

The problem is that electronic products contain a number of hazardous materials - materials such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium. Under conditions of use, these things are necessary to make things work and pose no threat to consumers or the environment. But when these products are discarded, the same materials that made them work can create environmental problems when they are thrown away and landfilled with ordinary household trash.

Big numbers
On a national level, the number of discarded electronic products entering our waste stream is staggering. In 1998, for example, an estimated 35 million personal computers were sold in the U.S. alone. That same year, another 20.6 million personal computers became obsolete. Today, estimates are that for every three new computers sold, two become obsolete. That ratio is expected to reach 1:1 by 2010. At present, the best estimates are that there are between 320 and 330 million obsolete computers in the U.S. They are in closets, basements and attics everywhere. These obsolete or unwanted items will ultimately be disposed of, but at best, only 15% of them are currently recycled.

Computer monitors and televisions are hazardous because they contain significant amounts of leaded glass. A typical CRT can contain between three and six pounds of lead, depending on its size and construction. The lead is necessary to protect users from radiation produced by the computer.

Cell phones are another growing source of e-waste. Estimates project the number of discarded cell phones entering the waste stream to be 500 million by 2005. Accelerating this trend is the declining life cycle of cell phones today. Competition in the wireless communications market is fierce. As service providers scramble for increasing shares of the market, equipment changes rapidly, leaving millions of unwanted models out of work. Smaller, faster, better, and loaded with new features. We love technology. Similar trends – but with smaller numbers – can be identified with nearly all types of electronic products and small appliances.

Wireless phones are full of printed circuit boards that contain heavy metals such as lead, chromium, silver, zinc, tin and copper with varying content from board to board. The rechargeable batteries that power them may contain lead, mercury and cadmium. Certain components such as switches and some types of relays that contain mercury are found in many electronic products. In much older computers and even televisions - from the 1970s and earlier - PCBs were common in transformers and capacitors.

According to Eric Goldsmith, vice president of the The Goldsmith Group, Inc., of Indianapolis, Indiana, a leading recycler of e-waste, the blow to the environment from landfilling our nation’s current crop of obsolete e-waste would include: 385,000 tons of leaded glass; 2,767,187 tons of ferrous metals; 1,135,750 tons of non-ferrous metals; 288,750 tons of precious metals; 211,750 tons of mixed plastic; and 14,437 tons of hazardous waste.

Like all forms of hazardous waste, improper disposal of these items can lead to environmental damage as well as long-term public health risks.

A valuable resource
Aside from the benefits of keeping hazardous components of e-waste out of our landfills, there are plenty of good reasons to recycle obsolete electronic products. Many of the precious metals and other materials involved can be recovered and recycled into new products. Eric Goldsmith observes, “Gold, silver, platinum and palladium are present in sufficient quantities to make recovery worthwhile, and there’s certainly no shortage of scrap products to extract from.”

In addition to precious metals, processing e-waste also returns significant quantities of steel, aluminum and plastics.

What’s next for recycling?
Electronic waste is here to stay. As technology continues to advance, consumers will update to flat screen monitors, HDTV and newer, presumably better convenience and communications products of all kinds. The options for dealing with e-waste are numerous, and an easy solution is not likely.

Some states, such as New York, view e-waste disposal in the same way as medical waste. While they classify it as hazardous, they consider the quantities of the material involved before determining if special treatment is required. Most states allow individuals to dump their unwanted electronic items in a proper landfill or incinerator. But larger generators of e-waste such as a manufacturer are required to use a hazardous waste disposal site.

Other states, such as California, Massachusetts and Minnesota have already passed legislation that bans all CRTs (cathode ray tubes) from municipal solid waste landfills and incinerators. As more states prioritize these issues, manufacturers will likely begin feeling more pressure. California, in particular has several pieces of new legislation pending. Michele Raymond, publisher of State Recycling Laws Update commented, “Passage of another state bill will add to the domestic and international pressure on electronics makers to ensure recovery of their products,” she said. “Electronics makers already have three sets of takeback mandates to comply with in Europe and Asia – there are laws on packaging, batteries, and now electronics products. There were 52 e-waste bills introduced in 26 states this year, and many of them moved,” Raymond noted. “If California blinks, other states often follow suit,” she said.

A long-term solution for dealing with e-waste could prove complicated and raises some interesting questions. For example, what should manufacturers that build these products and the consumers who buy them be responsible for? Another concern is the continued financial viability of recycling. The most current electronics technologies are reducing the content of hazardous materials, including the need for precious metals. Will there be sufficient reward to cost-justify capital investments needed to recycle e-waste with diminishing returns in the future? Lastly, since many of the products in North American e-waste are built overseas, coordinating the effort would be time consuming and has the potential to add significant cost. Consumers will ultimately pay higher prices for products that require specialized, post-life disposal.

On the back end of the issue, e-waste collection programs need to be managed and public awareness of the need to recycle these products must be increased.

One point is certain. E-recycling rates remain low. If landfills across the country were to ban the acceptance of e-waste in the near-term, there is no immediate solution. The market just isn’t ready. We must begin in earnest to make sensible, cost-effective options for recycling e-waste available, and continue developing markets for recovered materials. There’s no time to lose.

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