CATS: To recycle e-waste sustainably or not – that is the question

Number five in the Clean Air Technologies Series.

Mobile phone printed circuit board

Besides air quality, my posts all have one thing in common: they were created using a computer.

I don’t know about the rest of the world’s computer purchasers, but I know in my own history I have owned five total. Then I thought about ancillary devices like hard drives, printers, monitors, etc. and how many of these I’ve owned. Now, add to this, cell phones, televisions, radios, clock radios, and whatever other consumer electronics products there are under the sun. Then I got to thinking where all this ‘stuff’ went when I discarded the items that were discarded.

A lot of it I transported to a local electronics recycler for disposition; disposition in this case involving disassembly and redistribution. In that I was able to take advantage of what I call a ‘fee-free’ collection event, I along with others were provided a way – a sustainable way – to dispense with unwanted and unused electronics gear without there being a monetary charge being levied. Okay, now I’m thinking about countless others doing the very same thing.

In a 60 Minutes feature called: “The Wasteland,” revealed was just how many computers and cell phones in the U.S. are being thrown away.

Interviewed in this episode is Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist and waste management authority who on-air expressed in no uncertain terms, “‘The problem with e-waste is that it is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide. ….Well, we throw out about a hundred-and-thirty-thousand computers every day in the United States. ….And, we throw out over a hundred million cell phones every year.’”

So, where is all this electronics refuse going? Hopefully, the majority ends up at recyclers who then dispose of the gear in a sustainable manner.

If this doesn’t happen, then all of this so-called “electronic trash” could potentially wind up in a landfill in someone’s back yard, because, after all, it will go somewhere.

The idea behind e-waste recycling is that component parts and pieces from disassembled product can be reused and can therefore get a new lease on life.

By the same token, tons of electronics which, by the way, contain precious metals, are also being reconstituted. That’s a given. If reconstituted in environmentally unsafe ways, to use a metaphor, that’s a bridge over troubled water to put matters mildly.

Quite interestingly, there was this, a March 10, 2010 Boston Globe article with the title: “Quit dumping old TVs overseas.”

The lead-in to the article in question reads as follows: “Indonesia’s recent rebuff to a Brockton company seeking to ship old TVs overseas calls attention to the United States’ failure to sign the Basel Treaty that bans dumping of electronic goods in developing nations. The United States needs to figure out a way to deal with its own electronic waste rather than pollute other countries.”

Without question, the bottom-line objective is universal eco-friendly electronics-product-decomposition-processes compliance. Following that course is what should be exacted worldwide, and that goes without saying. The bulk of companies engaged in e-waste recycling are hopefully already doing just that.

For more on The Basel Treaty or Convention, see:

– Alan Kandel