If you are like most people, you have an old computer stuffed away in the back of your closet or an obsolete TV gathering dust in the corner of your garage. In many parts of the country, electronics recycling centers are few and far between and community-recycling drives are only offered once in a blue moon, if at all.
A staggering 400 million units of electronic waste are scrapped in the United States each year (International Association of Electronics Recyclers), and this trend is likely to continue, as there are always more gadgets to be had. Add to this the fact that electronics tend to become obsolete rather quickly, and you can see we have a growing e-waste problem.
“The electronics waste stream is growing at five times the rate of any other waste stream,” said Matthew Coz, VP of Growth and Commodity Sales for Waste Management Recycle America. “The product life cycles are shrinking. We are constantly creating more of that waste.”
Electronics recycling is the best way to respond to the issue in the short-term. It decreases the need to mine raw materials and keeps hazardous waste out of landfills. Recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions and can create thousands of jobs. But the unfortunate truth is that only 12.5% of electronics are currently being collected for recycling, according to a 2005 EPA report. Of that quantity, much of it is not being safely handled.
With that said, there are numerous obstacles that need to be simultaneously addressed to bring about significant progress in the area of electronics recycling. The good news is that those obstacles are not insurmountable.
Improper Handling of Electronic Recycling
Not all electronic recycling programs are created equal, so it is important to exercise care when handing over those dusty, obsolete electronics. Although some recycling programs recycled nearly 100% of a given item, there is some truth to the stories about whole electronic items being shipped to developing countries where they are not properly handled or child labor practices may exacerbate health risks.
While some materials can be salvaged, often the remaining components are not safely handled. Electronics can contain large amounts of heavy metals such as lead and mercury, which can wreak havoc on the environment. Some of the main threats are air pollution from incineration or water contamination as hazardous materials break down and enter both surface water as well as groundwater supplies.
Such issues make effective legislation very important. In the meantime, the Basal Action Network has created an electronics recyclers pledge of true stewardship with a rigorous criteria for sustainable and socially just recycling practices (http://www.ban.org/pledge/Locations.html).
Although the European Union has had e-waste policies in effect since 2003, the U.S. lacks a coordinated national policy. Because of this lack in federal leadership, many individual states have taken the problem into their own hands by establishing state-level electronic waste programs.
“What has happened thus far is a state by state approach,” said Matthew Coz. “Right now there are roughly 19 states and NYC with e-waste legislation or a disposal ban on electronics. There are another 24 states with pending legislation.”
Policy can mandate responsible handling practices and restrict items from being dumped or improperly handled overseas. Having policy with some teeth can offer guidance to this fledgling industry and help establish much-needed infrastructure.
Infrastructure to Handle Growing Waste Stream
The transition from having 12.5% of electronics recycled to having the majority recycled will require a strong infrastructure, far beyond what is currently in place.
“We need facilities to be able to turn old plastics or old circuit boards into reusable materials that manufacturers can use,” said Garth Hickle, Director of Product Stewardship for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “We are doing really well in the first tier of demanufacturing [electronics] into components, but we could use some more investment in the next step, like handling more value added processes such as plastics,” added Hickle.
Convenient Electronic Recycling
One of the easiest ways to engage consumers is by creating a network of convenient electronics recycling programs.
To wit, Sony and Waste Management Recycle America have recently teamed up to create a national electronics-recycling program, with drop-off sites in every state. Their goal is to have electronics recycling center within 20 miles of 95% of the U.S. population.
“We’re trying to make recycling as easy as it is to purchase,” said Doug Smith, Director of Environment for Sony Electronics. “Every pound we sell we want to take back and recycle a pound.”
“The reality is, the real solution comes when we have a couple thousand of these [drop-off] locations,” said Matthew Coz. “There is really a mosaic that needs to be built. We have to have other avenues besides just drop-off points.”
Other viable solutions for recycling of e-waste could include mail-in programs, community recycling drives, and retailer take-back programs. Although retailers have helped many European countries achieve high recycling rates, they have traditionally had little involvement in U.S. recycling efforts. Best Buy however recently started offering a free electronics-recycling program at 117 stores across the country.
Convenient recycling options also help reduce the environmental impact of transporting electronics. “If you have to get into your car and drive 60 miles to recycle a DVD player, from a carbon footprint perspective that is probably not a great solution,” said Matthew Coz.
Making Electronic Recycling Lucrative
In an ideal world, electronics will be recycled because of the economic benefits and that is true to some extent today.
“There are some valuable materials in electronics, such as aluminum and copper,” said Garth Hickle. “Given the global commodity prices for those materials, there really is some economic benefit to recycling. Oil is currently priced at $147 a barrel, making plastics in some products more valuable.”
If the cost of metals and plastics increase, the recycling market will benefit. As the scale of recycling programs expands, the costs associated with recycling will diminish. Advances in product design will make recycling easier and more cost effective. Improving the recycling infrastructure will decrease the need to transport materials long distances and provide more uses for recycled materials.
Manufacturer Responsibility and Product Design
Designing electronics that can be easily recycled will be a breath of fresh air to recyclers and will make recycling more lucrative. This can be achieved by placing responsibility on the producer (manufacturers and importers).
“If manufacturers are responsible for recycling, there is a defined incentive both from a liability and financial perspective for them to make sure those products can be more easily and thus more cheaply recycled,” said Garth Hickle.
Product design is an area that can be greatly improved, especially when considering the reuse of product components. Reducing the use of hazardous materials and producing electronics that can be easily dismantled is one method of accomplishing this. Using fewer plastic resins and the use of screws instead of glue for example helps streamline the recycling process.
Ultimately, recycling is not a long-term solution to the ever-increasing e-waste stream and a paradigm shift is needed. Remanufacturing is one such example and involves making today’s gadget using yesterday’s parts. Such products come with enhancements over the old product and a fresh warranty. For example, a paper tray in a copy machine being manufactured today can have a paper tray that is compatible with models from previous years. The paper trays in good condition from recycled copy machines can be reused instead of recycled. Xerox Europe has been very successful at doing this and diverted 170 million pounds of waste from landfills in 2007 alone.
Remanufacturing is the best-case scenario because it saves both energy and raw materials, beyond what recycling can offer. Although cost savings to the manufacturer can be significant, it does require considerable attention in the design of a product and it is more labor intensive to dismantle rather than recycle electronic appliances. Remanufacturing is usually best suited for products that are not evolving so quickly, such as vacuum cleaners rather than flat screen TVs or cell phones.
Collaboration and Partnerships
All hands are needed on deck to tackle the issue of electronic waste. Alliances among companies and organizations in various industries are helpful. Sony and Waste Management formed a partnership and a national electronics-recycling program where nearly 100% of a given product is recycled - a program that would have been very difficult for one company to create alone.
Corporations purchasing large quantities of computers can work with the manufacturer to ensure that the products will be safely recycled or refurbished at the end of product life. Community and church groups can host recycling drives, while schools can educate students on the importance of recycling. Refurbishers offer a great service by avoiding the need to recycle items, while decreasing the need for new gadgets. Goodwill and other thrift stores have done this effectively for years.
The scope, urgency, and complexity of the situation demands an assortment of solutions and approaches. The most effective advances depend on companies, organizations, and local governments coming together to create convenient ways for individuals to recycle their electronic waste.