What Everyone Should Know About e-Waste

Tue, 2012-10-09 11:51

It’s official. As a modern society, we are addicted to electronic products and devices. Newer is almost always better, and upgrading to the best version is a way of life. Computers and cell phones are becoming obsolete at an ever-quickening pace, and early adopters race to be the first to trade up to the latest and greatest technology. In the name of energy efficiency, we are ditching old appliances in favor of newer, more efficient, smarter models.

But, what happens to our old, well-loved gadgets and appliances when they reach the end of their usable life? What is the most responsible way to dispose of them? The pursuit of acceptable answers to these questions has spawned an entire industry based on the handling of what is referred to as e-waste.

Before you set out to make your next “out with the old, in with the new” purchase, here are a few things you should know about e-waste:

The Problem

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American household uses 24 electronic products, and each year, Americans discard more than 2 million tons of electronic products. Some of the components within these electronic devices pose significant health and environmental risks if disposal is not managed properly. The cathode ray tubes found in many older TVs and monitors contain high amounts of lead. Computer circuit boards, as well as the fluorescent tubes common in some laptops, contain mercury. Lead and mercury are heavy metals that are extremely toxic and poisonous to the human body, resulting in severe damage to major organs including the kidneys, liver, heart and brain. In order to avoid exposure and related health risks, these toxins must be handled safely and properly disposed of.

In addition to the harmful substances, electronics are also made from valuable resources and highly engineered materials. Precious metals, copper, glass, and plastics are all components within electronics that require considerable energy to process and manufacture. Continually producing and tossing these valuable materials increases greenhouse gas emissions and pollution and further depletes natural resources.

The Solutions – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

epeat logoThe first line of defense in reducing e-waste is to buy smart. Buy only what you need, and consider products that can achieve multiple tasks using one device. Purchase durable products that will last, and maintain products properly to extend their life. It’s helpful to buy products that are energy efficient, such as those with an ENERGY STAR label. You can also feel better about Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT)-certified products. EPEAT requirements are based on the environmental impacts of the overall product lifecycle.

When the time comes to say goodbye to an old electronic device, consider options for reuse before any other option. Donating computers, cell phones, and appliances provides a valuable community service to charities, schools, and other nonprofit organizations. Cell phones can be refurbished and reused, and most telecommunications carriers now offer trade-in or buy-back plans that make it financially beneficial to keep cell phones out of landfills.

If reuse is not an option, electronics can be sent to processing facilities that recover and recycle the reusable materials. Almost all of the materials from a cell phone can be recycled into new products including metals, plastics, glass, and rechargeable batteries.

The Challenges of Recycling

The EPA encourages the use of certified electronics recyclers to ensure that standards of safe handling and environmental protection are upheld. How do you find a recycler that you can be sure is safely handling materials and not just dumping the waste in landfills or shipping it to developing nations that are not equipped to deal with it?

R2 logo 

 Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) and e-Stewards are the two accredited certification standards that exist to put forth safety and environmental guidelines for recyclers. The certifications are voluntary, and the EPA does not endorse one program over the other, although the e-Stewards standards are the more stringent of the two. The e-Stewards standards prohibit disposal of toxic e-waste into landfills and incinerators. The export of hazardous e-waste to developing countries is also prohibited. Procedures must be established to test for and monitor chemical hazards in order to minimize exposure and protect worker health and safety. R2 and e-Stewards standards both require destruction of data on all used electronics.

When it comes to electronics, the mantra should be reduce, reuse, research, recycle. Find out who will be handling your e-waste after collection, ask questions, and look for the certification to prevent good green intentions from turning into pollution.

Implementing an e-waste program is an important first step to greening the workplace. For more information on how to take the lead and establish corporate sustainability policies, check out Everblue’s ISSP Sustainability Associate training.

By Amy Malloy

Forward to a Friend