WEEE: Use-Recycling Odyssey

We can say that having access to toilets, toothbrushes, and food is essential and very important for our daily living. As the world population grows and modernizes, recycling, trying to maintain a small carbon-footprint, and being greener are becoming more important in everyday life. Currently, we are about 7 billion people on earth, and 6 billion people own… guess what: a toothbrush or mobile device? Shockingly, while 6 billion people own a mobile device, only 3.5 own a toothbrush (Ewww…)!

Electrical/electronic industry and information technology is probably the fastest growing industry in recent years. Everyday new and more sophisticated gadgets are coming out and, with this, the obsolescence of our current technology. Every new electronic product, whether it is a computer, cell phone, TV, iPod, etc., is future trash. Technological advances have made both production and consumption reach astronomical levels, resulting in the increase in waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Throwing our “nasty” old toothbrush out is not the same as throwing out our “fancy” mobile phone device because we want an upgrade. Is our mobile phone the only device we want to upgrade? Of course not. We also have an ipod, ipad, Kindle, headphones, laptop, desktop, X-Box, Wii, etc., ect. the list goes on and on. EPA estimates that more than 3.5 million tons of obsolete or damaged electronic device waste is generated annually.

Today, the increase production of electric and electronic wastes is not the only problem. It is also the manufacturing of equipment and chemicals that may have health and environmental risks; there is definitely a need for greener electric and electronic designs, as well as greener production processes and manipulation. When the wastes are not well processed and stored, these chemicals can get in contact with people, water, soil, and other resources. The components that generate the most concern are heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium; halogenated substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), metals polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and some brominated flame retardants; and  arsenic. It is well known that most of these materials have a diverse impact on health: damage to digestive and nervous systems, acute diseases, and chronic diseases like cancer4. . Yes! our “fancy” devices are nastier than our old forgotten toothbrush.

On average, electronic products last a few years, depending on the functions for which they were designed, and only about 25% in the U.S. is recycled, according to the EPA. It is not surprising how the interest in the extraction of metals from metal rich electronic devices has increased in the last few years. According to EPA, 35,274 pounds of copper can be recovered from recycled cell phones, as well as save enough energy to power 24,000 US homes. About 80% of electrical and electronic waste is deposited in landfills together with municipal waste, incinerated, or exported to developing countries, such as China, India and Pakistan. Although there are some WEE exportation agreements around the world, there are irregularities in some cross-border transportation and management. Illegal importation and exportation still exists, increasing environmental and health risks. The recovery operations of plastic, gold and copper in these countries are performed manually without any pre-treatment and/or personal protection for recyclers; management protocols are non-existent.

Being that the United States of America is one of the major consumer and producers of WEE, Representatives Gene Green and Mike Thompson presented the H.R. 2791 The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA). The bill looks to ban the exportation of WEE from the US to developing countries, not only to reduce environmental health risks but also to generate new jobs in USA. This bill was supported by companies like HP, Dell Best Buy, and by The Electronics TakeBack Coalition in 2011. Currently, it is supported by the recently created Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER)4. However, the role of producers and distributors is important. Companies like Apple, IBM, HP, as well distributors like Staples and Best Buy, are showing their commitment by being more environmentally and socially responsible by not only supporting this act but also by implementing “TakeBack” policies. European countries are also adapting different policies in order to implement and manage recycling practices of such waste. These practices go hand-in-hand with policies to extend the useful life of equipment, repair and circulation through the development of second-hand markets4.

While politicians debate the best policies, we as consumers and users of these materials must be aware and start thinking about personal policies, as well as our social and environmental responsibility when using electrical and electronic products. It is important to make conscious decisions when disposing of these devices. Continuous technological evolution gives electronic devices shorter life spans, because consumers want to upgrade their cell phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment, printers, etc. more frequently than in the past. For example, in areas like Europe, electronic waste is increasing nearly three times faster than the entire municipal waste stream6,4.

After re-use options in secondary markets are exhausted, recycling is definitely the best way to manage this type of waste. As a society, We need better legislation and expanded waste management programs to reduce and responsibly manage our  waste; as electronics consumers, we need to use our electrical and electronic equipment with more responsibility and become more conscious of the impacts of our electronics habits. Our efforts to address this problem must start at the producer and distributor level, but the ultimate responsibility rests in the hands of us,the users; we must be more conscious and make informed decisions about our electric and electronic devices, from cradle to grave.

What can we do to better manage our waste electronic devices?

1.         Please, do not throw your device in the trash

2.         Before you throw it away ask yourself, do I really need to upgraded my device? Can I reuse it, fix it, donate it?

3.         Find which companies are certified recyclers of electric and electronic equipment in your state or city.

4.          E-Steward it if you cannot find recycling programs.

Through our actions, we will help reduce air, soil, and water contamination, and by choosing a certified recycling company, we reduce health and environmental risks at the local and global scale. Most importantly, we need to educate ourselves on better habits and make more conscious decisions about the waste we generate. We must start being greener not only in our classrooms, labs, and homes, but also as consumers; using the power of our hard earned dollar, we must demand products designed to last, green manufacturing processes, and responsible end-of-life programs. Combined, this will yield  the ultimate goal of greener products and greener habits.

 

More information

Find which companies are certified responsible recyclers of electric and electronic equipment in your state or city

http://www.e-stewards.org/find-a-recycler/

More Resources on E-Cycling

http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/pubs.htm

References

1. Hall N. Are there really more mobile phones than toothbrushes?

http://60secondmarketer.com/blog/2011/10/18/more-mobile-phones-than-toothbrushes/

Access: May 15th , 2014

2. EPA: Common Wastes and Materials –eCycling

http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/faq.htm

Access: May 4th , 2014

3. EPA National Strategy For Electronics Stewardship

http://www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/materials/ecycling/taskforce/docs/strategy.pdf

http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/pubs.htm

Access: May 4th , 2014

4. C.D. Debaise,  204. Finding Rewards, Financial and Spiritual, in E-Waste. New York Times.http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/16/finding-rewards-financial-and-spiritual-in-e-waste/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Access: May 4th, 2014

5. R. Kahhata & E. Williams, 2012. Materials flow analysis of e-waste: Domestic flows and exports of used computers from the United States. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 67: 67– 74

6. P. Kiddee, R. Naidu, M.H. Wong, 2013. Electronic waste management approaches: An overview. Waste Management 33: 1237–1250

7. F.O. Ongondo, I.D. Williams, T.J. Cherrett, 2011. How are WEEE doing? A global review of the management of electrical and electronic wastes. Waste Management 31: 714–730

8. H.R. 2791, The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act

http://beta.congress.gov/113/bills/hr2791/BILLS-113hr2791ih.xml

Access: May 4th, 2014

9. H.R. 2284, The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act

http://green.house.gov/sites/green.house.gov/files/documents/112thEWasteExportBill.pdf

Access: May 4th, 2014