Combatting the E-Waste Deluge
July 17, 2008
It’s the beginning of the 28th century, and the Earth is so over-run by garbage as to be uninhabitable for humankind.
It’s the beginning of the 21st century, and the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that we generate up to 50 million tons of e-waste (televisions, computers, and other electronics) every year. That’s almost 70 tons a minute.
The first scenario is fictional, the plot of Disney’s summer blockbuster movie Wall-E. The second is scenario is real -- our actual e-waste situation right now. Is it so hard to imagine the reality of 2008 leading to the dystopia of 2700?
In short, the bad news is that we’re discarding an ever-increasing volume of toxic e-waste. For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans trashed 47 million computers in 2005, up from 20 million in 1998.
The worse news is that while our lawmakers should be figuring out ways to reverse this trend, they’ve actually passed legislation that will accelerate it.
Congress passed legislation last year shifting the nation’s television signals from analog to digital without any requirement to recycle the millions of analog TV sets that will be made obsolete by the switch.
Electronics companies (whose lobbyists argued in favor of the switch) will see increased sales, when up to 20 percent of analog-only households see their screens go dark in February 2009. Congress should have coupled the switch with a requirement for manufacturers to responsibly recycle their products – not just abandon the useless sets to landfills.
For those concerned about electronic waste, we have three signs of hope:
- Converter boxes – If you are one of the 20 million households that will lose your television signal in 2009, you do not have to purchase a brand new television. Converter boxes, costing from $50 - $70, can keep your TV working. The government offers free $40 vouchers for these boxes. (Visit www.dtv.gov to get one.)
- Sony – Alone among the large electronics manufacturers, Sony offers free television recycling. Sony’s program, which makes good business sense, can serve as a model for other companies. “The price of copper has quadrupled,” Sony Environmental Affairs Director Douglas Smith told the International Herald Tribune. By recycling, “we can get the copper back to our factory and make new circuit boards.”
- The states – Even if the federal government has been lax in dealing with e-waste, the states are taking the lead. According to the Electronics Takeback Coalition, thirteen states have passed “producer responsibility laws,” mandating that manufacturers pay for the recycling of their products. What’s more, seven states have banned e-waste from landfills, and 35 more states are considering such laws.
Still, there’s a downside to the states’ desire to keep e-waste from accumulating within their borders, and that’s the unfortunate reality that many electronics recyclers simply send our e-waste overseas. There the toxic components (lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, arsenic, and much more) can still poison workers and the environment.
India, China, and Nigeria are all likely destinations for e-waste shipped overseas, and there, according to Forbes.com: “… [C]hildren making pennies a day troll mounds of garbage in search of computers and TVs. Lacking tools to tear open computer shells, they burn the plastic … breathing noxious fumes. They dip circuit boards in acid and melt lead in the same pans they use to cook their meager meals. They toss remains back on the pile where toxins seep into water supplies.”
Here again, the federal government has not embraced its role in mitigating the dangers of e-waste.
Since 1995, Congress has had the opportunity to ratify the Basel Convention, a treaty that outlaws developed countries dumping hazardous waste on developing countries, but has not yet done so.
In the meantime, you can take action on your own. If you wish to discard your analog TV responsibly, the Basel Action Network provides a list of responsible recyclers that refuse to dump our e-waste on developing nations. And demand that the Federal Communications Commission, charged with implementing the analog to digital switch, require television manufacturers to recycle (send them a message here).
You can do your part to avoid the toxic future predicted by Wall-E.