It’s a question readers might not ponder: What happens to something after it’s recycled? In the case of electronics, the answer could be more damaging to the environment than helpful.
Accurate figures are difficult to find but last year the AP reported 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year is exported to poor, remote communities overseas. The junked electronics, with extremely hazardous components, are sorted through with the hope of selling materials.
Americans alone throw out 130,000 computers each day and 100 million cell phones are disposed annually. As we are pushed for switching to digital in the next three months or else, the numbers for television could be shattering.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is ten times cheaper to export e-waste than to dispose of it at home. So we’re keeping our environment clean, but contaminating others? These unknown destinations are keeping it a secret, not exactly welcoming outsiders.
Or 60 Minutes for that matter:
The EPA needs to upgrade recycling standards wherever it takes place. The “Responsible Recycling (R2) Practices for Use in Accredited Certification Programs for Electronics Recyclers” is a new guide they devised for electronics recyclers how to run safe and environmentally friendly operations. And it sounds good: “The R2 guide lists 13 principles to help electronics recyclers ensure their material is handled safely and legally in the U.S. and foreign countries. It calls on recyclers to establish a management system for environmental and worker safety; develop a policy that promotes reuse and material recovery over landfill or incineration; and use practices that reduce exposures or emissions during recycling operations. The principles also call for recyclers to use diligence to assure appropriate management of materials throughout the recycling chain, including materials that are exported to foreign countries.”
But these are voluntary guidelines, so there’s no assurance for this necessary waste management.
Electronics TakeBack Coalition released a report card for TV manufacturers which examined the quality of companies recycling programs. The results are grim. Nobody comes close to acing it, although Sony gets a high-five. They earned a B minus. Woo hoo.
The report card says that even though the digital conversion was imminent, just over a over a year ago, no TV company had a national takeback and recycling program. For several years. computer manufacturers---Apple, Dell and Hewlett Packard for example---designed programs to reclaim old equipment and prevent it from being dumped and shipped elsewhere. However, TV companies were lobbying against state laws mandating anything resembling a takeback program.
Additionally, the problem is the lack of transparency from television manufacturers since the grading criteria was based on where the materials are going, how they are being handled. This was largely unreported and, that there are no goals for collection, is unsettling.
A way to solve this problem represents a new way of thinking for out of control consumerism. Greenpeace Southeast Asia Toxics Campaigner Beau Baconguis: “We maintain that the useful lives of existing electronic and computer equipment should be prolonged as much as possible. In the end, this is about social responsibility. The idea that software innovation would result in more mountains of computer scrap ending up in the dumps of Asia and Africa, contaminating the environment, and affecting the health of communities, is both offensive and intolerable.”
Until the world learns more about what's happening with electronics shipped overseas, one would believe it shouldn’t take a whole lot of effort to keep this from happening. Make your electronics last as long as you can, and if you’re shopping, consider buying used. The next best thing isn’t always worth it.
The DTE blog is committed to reporting and sharing environmental news and sustainability information from across the Inland Northwest.