United States Postal Service launchs e-waste recycling program

The United States Postal Service is developing a free national collection program for small electronic items.

The pilot program provides envelopes with pre-paid postage for patrons to deposit their digital cameras, printer cartridges, MP3 players, cell phones, and PDAs. International recycling company Clover Technologies Group will process the devices in its United States and Mexican facilities to refurbish and resell them, if possible.

Now limited to select cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, the program may expand nationwide in the fall, and it eventually may accept a wider range of devices. “It doesn’t cost us anything because [Clover] is paying for postage on the envelope,” said Joanne Veto, a post office spokesperson. “For us, it’s a really smart thing to do.”

The program would be a de facto national electronic recycling program - the first for the United States. As the only industrialized nation not to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, which requires its signatories to notify developing nations of incoming hazardous waste shipments, many environmentalists have criticized the country for its lack of action to reduce the international spread of electronic garbage, known as e-waste.

Americans discard at least 2 million tons of household electronics each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Less than 20 percent of that e-waste is recycled, although state-led initiatives are beginning to improve this recycling rate. Once recycled, however, e-waste is frequently sold to brokers who ship it to the developing world, where it is often dismantled with little regard for worker safety, then burned in the open air or dumped into bodies of water.

The postal service program made it a priority to avoid sending e-waste to developing countries. “Are all these shipped to non-approved third world countries? No. Not at all. That was a big concern of the contract,” said Eric Martin, Clover’s vice president of sales.

If a product is not recycled, it is shipped internationally to smelters that strip the item of its plastics and metals. The remaining waste - in some facilities as little as half of one percent of the total collected waste (by weight) - is burned as fuel. But even the best industry practices are incapable of removing all e-waste toxins. A typical cell phone, for example, contains hazardous lead, beryllium, chromium, arsenic and flame retardants.

While the United States is among the leaders of e-waste production, it is not alone. According to the United Nations Environment Program, the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste each year. But while the United States has encouraged manufacturers to reduce hazardous waste in their products on a voluntary basis, the European Union has made such reductions mandatory.