E-Waste, the Garbage of the Future
One of the largest concerns of recycling today is managing electronic waste. E-waste includes cell phones, computers, televisions, VCRs, copiers, and fax machines — anything with a battery or a plug. While some of this equipment can be recycled or donated to a charity, much of it is obsolete or broken.
When taken to a landfill for disposal, e-waste takes up valuable room. Worse, it has the potential to release metals such as mercury and lead into the environment, although placing e-waste in a landfill is healthier for the environment than incineration. When incinerated, the plastics release dioxins into the air.
The only national legislation regarding e-waste applies to cathode ray tubes (CRT) from computer and television monitors. This legislation states that CRT will not be considered solid waste when processed for recycling. This act saves recyclers from having to abide by strict solid waste regulations and keeps the waste from being considered hazardous. But because it only affects one component of the volume of e-waste generated, it doesn't really help the e-waste recycling industry as a whole.
More than 3,000 tons of electronic equipment are discarded every day. Computers contain a multitude of parts, and some include enough lead and mercury to be considered hazardous.
Some states have enacted legislation to address the growing problem of e-waste and e-waste recycling. California, for example, assesses an advance recovery fee when electronics are purchased. The amount of the fee varies from $6 to $10, depending on the size of the product, and goes into an account that's used to pay collectors and recyclers.
An important concern with the recycling of e-waste is that portions of waste that are generated in the United States are now shipped to China and India for recycling. This has huge transportation costs, financially and environmentally. However, as these countries become overburdened by waste and citizens rally for stronger environmental laws, it is expected that exporting e-waste from the United States will be limited.
A more malicious problem is e-waste that is shipped to developing countries under the guise of technological donations. As much as 75 percent of the “donated” products do not work, according to a speech by the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. The defunct products end up in landfills, where dangerous pollutants leak out and contaminate the soil and water.
Other items take up relatively small portions of the waste stream but should be recycled nonetheless:
Single-use and rechargeable batteries are accepted by some radio electronics and office stores.
Carpet and padding can be used to make other carpet and padding. Ask when you're buying new carpet if the old one will be recycled.
Car parts such as batteries, used oil, and oil filters can usually be dropped off at local auto-part stores for no charge.
Printer, fax, and inkjet cartridges can be recycled. There are many fundraising programs available for collecting and reimbursing for these recyclables. You can also send old cartridges back to the manufacturer; Hewlett Packard provides a self-addressed pouch with its new cartridges for just that purpose.
Cell phones can be returned to your service provider to be reused or recycled.
Some electronics stores will take your old materials for recycling. Call local stores to find out whether they will allow you to drop off your old electronics for recycling. Best Buy boasts it helped its consumers contribute 20 million pounds of e-waste to recycling programs in 2006. For locations of other recycling organizations, see Earth911.org for a directory.