What Every CIO Needs To Know About E-Waste

Americans each year discard more than 2.63 million tons of computers, cell phones, and other electronics—many containing lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium and other harmful materials. But where does it wind up?
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The following is a reprint of an Electronic TakeBack Coalition briefing book. Reprinted with permission. The full briefing book, with graphics and footnotes, is available here.

The Problem: The Looming E-Waste Tsunami

  • The electronics we buy don't last very long
  • Electronic equipment contains many toxic materials
  • More e-waste is thrown in the trash than recycled
  • Toxic components and poor design make e-waste hard to recycle
  • Most recyclers export the products to developing countries with no worker safety or environmental protections

Growing Sales, Shrinking Life-Spans

The world has been dazzled by advances in the electronics industry and the amazing products we now depend on in our everyday lives. But rapid advances in technology mean that electronic products are becoming obsolete more quickly. Shorter product life-spans, coupled with explosive sales in consumer electronics, mean that more products are being disposed of, and discarded computers, TVs, and other consumer electronics (so-called e-waste) are now the fastest growing waste stream in the U.S.

The sheer volume of e-waste is a looming tsunami, already spilling over into our landfills and incinerators, with no end in sight. Local governments must spend more of their scarce tax dollars to cope with the e-waste volumes, either as trash or through municipal recycling programs.

Out With Analog, In With Digital

To make matters worse, the FCC has mandated the transition to digital television on February 17, 2009.

On that date, TV stations will stop broadcasting analog signals over the airways and switch over to digital signals. This means that millions of older TVs will no longer receive any signal, and consumers must either buy a digital set-top converter box or a brand new TV in order to get over the airways reception. Millions of old TVs will end up in the trash as consumers opt for new flat panel TVs.

E-Waste Is Toxic Waste

E-waste contains toxic materials harmful to humans and our environment. Over 1,000 materials, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, PVC, heavy metals, plastics and gases, are used to make electronic products and their components - semiconductor chips, circuit boards, and disk drives.

CRT monitors and TVs contain between four to eight pounds of lead. As they break down in a landfill, they can leach toxic chemicals into groundwater. This has led some states to ban them from their landfills. Now with LCDs dominating the TV market, we face mercury contamination problems, since LCDs use mercury lamps to light their screens. Milligrams of mercury are used in each LCD, but it is so toxic that as little as one gram of airborne mercury deposited per year to a 20-acre lake is enough to maintain mercury contamination at a level where the fish are unsafe to eat. About 40% of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, found in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.

The health effects of lead are well known; lead exposure causes brain damage in children and has already been banned from many consumer products.

Mercury is toxic in very low doses, and causes brain and kidney damage. It can be passed on through breast milk. In a 2000 report, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that over 60,000 babies are born each year at risk for neurodevelopmental (nervous system) defects associated with high exposure to methylmercury in the womb.

Cadmium is a known cancer-causing substance. It accumulates in the body and can cause kidney damage.

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) may seriously affect hormonal functions critical for normal development. A recent study of dust on computers in workplaces and homes found BFRs in every sample taken. One group of BFRs has been found in alarming rates in the breast milk of women in Sweden and the U.S. Incineration of plastics containing BFRs generates toxic brominated dioxins and furans.

Plastics, including PVC, make up to 13.8 pounds of an average computer. Plastics are used in printed circuit boards, in connectors, plastic covers & cables. Hazardous chemical additives (like phthalates)can leach when PVC components of electronic products are landfilled, and burning PVC produces dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which can harm the immune and reproductive systems, and some of which are known to cause cancer. The U.S. EPA estimates that levels of dioxin contamination in the general population is at or near the level at which adverse health effects can be observed in both humans and animals. PVC manufacture and disposal adds to both the phthalate and dioxin body burden in all of us.

Beryllium is commonly found on motherboards and connectors. Beryllium is a human carcinogen.

Next: Where Does Most Toxic E-Waste Wind Up

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Trashed or Recycled? Most Toxic E-Waste Ends Up In Our Landfills

The EPA estimates that in 2005, the U.S. generated 2.63 million TONS of e-waste. But only 12.5% of that was collected for recycling.

The other 87.5% went to landfills and incinerators. Hazardous chemicals in e-waste can leach out of landfills into groundwater. Burning the plastics in electronics can emit the carcinogen dioxin.

These numbers don't include the millions of stockpiled computers, monitors and TV—which are stored in basements, garages, offices, closets and homes awaiting a decision.

Most "Recyclers" Don't Recycle:
Our E-Waste—They Export It To Developing Countries

Currently, a large portion of the hazardous electronic waste collected for recycling in the U.S. is actually exported to developing countries. There the products are dismantled and separated using such primitive and toxic technologies that workers and communities are exposed to many highly toxic chemicals.

In countries like China, India, Viet Nam, and Pakistan, workers in e-waste yards (working with few health and safety protections) actually "recycle" very little of these products - they use hammers, acids, and open burning to reclaim minimal materials and dump the rest.

In one e-waste processing region in China, more than 80% of the children have lead poisoning, the water is unsafe to drink, and the workers have extraordinarily high levels of toxic fire retardants in their bodies.

Waste traders can make more money by exporting toxic e-waste to countries where workers earn extremely low wages (ten cents per hour) and where health and safety laws are very weak, or are not enforced.

The Myth of Reuse:
Waste Traders Sell Non-Working Units Under Pretense of Reuse

Lagos, Nigeria has a vibrant reuse market and a skilled workforce for refurbishing used electronics. But as much as 75% of the electronics in the containers they receive from the U.S. and Europe cannot be resold or refurbished because they are scrap or very obsolete.

Instead, they are tossed into unregulated dumps—and then burned when the piles get too big, emitting deadly dioxin and furans. All of this happens right next to residential areas, exposing residents to toxic fumes on a regular basis.

Our Federal Laws Don't Prevent E-Waste Export

While importing e-waste from the U.S. violates the laws of many of the importing countries, it is not a violation of U.S. laws to export if from the U.S. But that was not always the case.

Many of the materials in e-waste were once considered "hazardous" under U.S. laws, and therefore covered by Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) laws. RCRA requires EPA oversight of hazardous waste exports. Under this law, the EPA must get the importing country's consent before allowing the shipment to leave the U.S.

But now, very little e-waste is covered by RCRA's notice and consent procedures. Over the years the EPA has weakened the rules, both by removing many of these materials from the definition of "hazardous" and by creating loopholes for materials being exported for alleged "recycling." So now, we have no meaningful restrictions on e-waste exports from the U.S.

Next: U.S. Prison E-Waste Recycling Plants

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U.S. Prison E-Waste Recycling Plants

Some recyclers and many federal government agencies send their e-waste to recycling plants operating in one of eight federal prisons. The recycling facilities are operated by UNICOR, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the federal Department of Justice. By paying prison workers as low as 23 cents per hour, UNICOR underbids and undermines private commercial recyclers, who simply can't compete with UNICOR's low rates. But even more alarming is UNICOR's track record on worker health and safety issues (for inmates and prison staff) in the recycling shops. Following a staff whistle blower complaint, UNICOR is currently under investigation by the federal Inspector General.

Federal investigators recently found airborne levels of lead at 50 times the legal limits and cadmium at 450 times the federal legal limits at UNICOR's Elkton, Ohio facility.

UNICOR has e-waste recycling facilities in the following federal prisons:

  • Atwater, CA
  • Elkton, OH
  • Ft. Dix, NJ
  • Leavenworth, KS
  • Lewisburg, PA
  • Marianna, FL
  • Texarkana, TX
  • Tucson, AZ

The Answer: Producer Responsibility Legislation

What is Producer Responsibility?

Currently, state and local governments shoulder the burden of dealing with e-waste. Whether it's administering a collection and recycling system, building landfills, or cleaning up dumped waste on the side of the road, taxpayers are currently the ones paying for the exploding costs of e-waste.

Under a producer responsibility system, the manufacturers—not consumers or government—take responsibility for the environmentally safe management of their products when they are no longer useful or are discarded. Giving the manufacturers the financial responsibility for managing their old products gives them a strong incentive to redesign their products to remove the toxic materials that make recycling challenging and expensive. And unless we make the products less toxic, we will never be able to fully recycle the materials back into new products.

Some Companies Are Taking Responsibility Voluntarily

Many computer companies have voluntarily launched programs to take back and recycle our old products. Of the TV manufacturers, only Sony has a takeback program.

Legislation For Producer Responsibility

Many states are passing legislation mandating that manufacturers offer free e-waste collection and recycling programs as a condition of selling in their states. Twelve states plus New York City have passed producer responsibility laws. (Most of these passed in 2007 and 2008.) California also has a statewide program, but it is funded via consumer-paid fees, not by the manufacturers.

Twelve states (plus New York City) have passed producer responsibility laws:

  • Connecticut
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • New York City
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

States considering producer responsibility laws in 2008:

  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (formerly the Computer TakeBack Campaign) is a national coalition of organizations promoting sustainable and responsible practices throughout the high-tech electronics industry, to protect public health and the environment. Steering Committee Organizations are Basel Action Network, Center for Environmental Health, Clean Production Action, Clean Water Action, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Texas Campaign for the Environment.

For More Information:

For more information on the e-waste issue, including the details of current state bills, and our "Facts and Figures on E-Waste."

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