The digital media revolution promises to improve the quality of our lives though an expanded capacity to communicate, collaborate, learn and make informed decisions. Yet our seemingly insatiable demand for digital media is driving a proliferation of consumer electronic devices and IT infrastructure, which are significantly contributing to a tsunami of toxic electronic waste.

This week U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson announced that promoting citizen engagement and increasing government accountability on enforcement to improve the design, production, handling, reuse, recycling, exporting and disposal of electronics is of the EPA’s top six international priorities. In light of this, publishers, device manufacturers, bandwidth providers and other players in the digital media supply chain should rethink their marketing narratives and redouble their efforts to identify, quantify, disclose and manage the toxic e-waste impacts associated with digital media — before regulation or catastrophe require them to do so.

The issues and dilemmas related to digital media and e-waste can be complex and confusing, but if they are ignored or only paid lip service to they will be sure to wash up on the shores of our lives… and in our politics, in short order. If you want a quick take on some of the key issues associated with e-waste, take a few minutes to watch this short animated Public Service Announcement co-produced for Good Magazine by Ian Lynam and Morgan Currie:

To learn more, read on. In the weeks ahead we look forward to your questions, comments and suggestions about how issues associated with the environmental impacts of the digital media revolution’s e-waste detritus can best be addressed. Here are some thought starters to get the conversation rolling.

FAQ

How much toxic e-waste is being created and what are some of its environmental and social impacts?

According to market analyst firm ABI Research, approximately 53 million tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide in 2009, and only about 13% of it was recycled. The Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC) estimates that 14 to 20 million PCs are thrown out every year in the U.S. alone. There has been a recent surge in e-waste created by aggressive marketing encouraging consumers to “upgrade” basic voice-only mobile devices to 3G and 4G smartphones and mobile game consoles. There has also been an enormous surge in CRT monitors and TV sets set into motion by the switch to large flat screen displays and DVRs.

The EPA estimates that over 99 million TV sets, each containing four to eight pounds of lead, cadmium, beryllium and other toxic metals, were stockpiled or stored in the U.S. in 2007, and 26.9 million TVs were disposed of in 2007 — either by trashing or recycling them. While it’s not a large part of the waste stream, e-waste shows a higher growth rate than any other category of municipal waste.

Overall, between 2005 and 2006, total volumes of municipal waste increased by only 1.2 percent, compared to 8.6 percent for e-waste. Particularly troubling are the mountains of hazardous waste from electronic products growing exponentially in developing countries. The United Nations report Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources predicts that e-waste from old computers will jump by 500 percent from 2007 levels in India by 2020 and by 200 percent to 400 percent in South Africa and China. E-waste from old mobile phones is expected to be seven times higher in China and 18 times higher in India. China already produces about 2.3 million ton of e-waste domestically, second only to the United States, which produces about 3 million tons each year.

According to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, e-waste contains over 1,000 toxic materials harmful to humans and our environment, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, plasticizers, PVC, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, plastics and gases used to make electronic products and their components such as semiconductor chips, batteries, capacitors, circuit boards, and disk drives. E-waste can also contain tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, of which Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act requires reporting if they originated in Congo or a neighboring country.

Not all e-waste is exported to China, India or Africa. The Electronics Take Back Coalition reports that some recyclers and many federal agencies in the U.S. send their e-waste to recycling plants operating in federal prisons operated by UNICOR, a wholly owned subsidiary of the federal Department of Justice. One criticism of UNICOR is that by paying prison workers as little as 23 cents per hour, they undercut private commercial recyclers. Another criticism is that reliance on high tech chain gangs may frustrate development of the free market infrastructure necessary to safely manage the tsunami of e-waste that the digital revolution is intensifying.

How much e-waste does the consumption and production of digital media generate?

Digital media doesn’t grow on trees. Its creation, distribution and use requires massive quantities of energy, minerals, metals, petrochemicals and labor. Rather than relying on proprietary estimates of product lifecycles or limited forensic evidence we need reliable standards-based lifecycle inventories of the energy and material flows that make our broadband connectivity and digital media experiences possible. Proponents of digital media often tout the benefits of the digital media shift in terms of the number of trees that will be saved, but shifting to digital media has an environmental footprint and toxic impacts that bear greater scrutiny.

The digital media industry has a long way to go before it can declare itself sustainable, or justify its environmental footprint based on cherry-picked data, anecdotal evidence and unfilled promises. Companies like Apple and HP that tout their commitments to sustainability fail to make a even a “greenish” grade in the most recent Greenpeace Greener Electronics Scorecard..

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Until media companies, device manufacturers and service providers are inspired to make standards-based environmental product declarations through market pressure or regulation, it will be impossible for consumers to make informed decisions or compare the climate change or e-waste impacts associated with specific products or services. A look at the overall growth trends in a few key categories is enough to justify more serious attention to the issues at hand and to the toxic tragedies that loom over the horizon.

A shift in preference from traditional media to digital media is one key trend. According to the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, Global Media and Entertainment 2010-2014, digital media’s share of consumer spending is growing at double digit rates and is expected to reach 33 percent of their entertainment and media spending by 2014.

Growth in the number of broadband mobile connections and wireless devices is also a determining factor. Smartphone manufacturer Ericsson estimates that the world will reach 50 billion mobile connections within this decade with 80 percent of all people accessing the Internet using their mobile devices. Ericsson estimates there are over 500 million 3G subscriptions worldwide with more than 2 million mobile subscriptions being added per day.

At current rates of growth some pundits believe we may soon face a zettaflood of data, and the number of broadband wireless connections, smartphones, e-books, tablets, game consoles and “wireless devices with IP addresses will outnumber humans on our planet by an order of magnitude. The World Wireless Research Forum predicts 7 trillion devices for 7 billion people by 2017 – a thousand devices for every man, woman and child on the planet.

In short we are rapidly becoming a world of digital media hyper-consumers that need to develop a better understanding of the connections between our rabid digital media appetites and their lifecycle environmental impacts before they become our undoing.

Unfortunately, at present there is no reliable way to determine and compare the greenhouse gas emission or e-waste impacts associated with digital media consumption. While the impact of an individual decision or transaction may be negligible, the aggregate impact of billions of connections and trillions of transactions cannot be left unexamined and unmanaged.

What laws and sources of international, federal, state and local government support for e-waste management are in place and on the horizon?

The U.S. lags behind the EU, which has recently created two new policies on ways to deal with e-waste: the Restriction on the Use of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. At present the U.S. is also the only member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that has not ratified the Basel Convention, which is intended to regulate the movement of hazardous waste across international borders.

In addition the U.S. does not have a comprehensive national approach for the reuse and recycling of used electronics, despite efforts to introduce federal legislation such as Senate Bill 1397 – Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act. However, electronics manufacturer take-back laws have gained traction at the state level.

An important report on e-waste recently issued by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) titled Electronic Waste: Considerations for Promoting Environmentally Sound Reuse and Recycling states that 23 states have passed legislation mandating statewide e-waste recycling, including several states that introduced legislation in 2010 (in yellow below).

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All of these laws except California use the Producer Responsibility approach, where the manufacturers must pay for recycling. A guide to current and pending e-waste legislation is available on the Electronics Take Back Coalition website.

The Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona recently published an award-winning paper titled E-wasted Time: The Hazardous Lag in
Comprehensive Regulation of the Electronics Recycling Industry in the United States
that addresses the status of electronics recycling regulation in the U.S., as well as how the regulatory climate influences industry practice.

How can consumers and manufacturers of digital electronic devices, providers of broadband connectivity and data center services address digital media/e-waste dilemmas through voluntary initiatives and coalitions?

The EPA provides a guide to locations where electronics can be donated for reuse or recycling through the Plug-In To eCycling Partnership, Responsible Recycling and Recycling Industry Operating Standard RIOS certification initiatives. The Electronics Take Back Coalition and the Basel Action Network (BAN) have developed a competing voluntary program called e-Stewards that identifies recyclers they deem to be environmentally and socially responsible.

Both the Electronics Take Back Coalition and Greenpeace have developed scorecards that rate companies on their policies and the actions they are taking to address e-waste issues. Such sites are far from perfect, but can help can you sort through the confusing combination of apathy, indifference, marketing spin and unfulfilled green promises that predominate in today’s consumer electronics marketplace. Before you buy or dispose of a cell phone, e-reader, tablet, PC, display, DVR, set-top box, game console, charger, plug strip, batteries, printers, or other electronic devices ask the manufacturer if there is a standards-based Environmental Product Declaration or Lifecycle Analysis for the product and check if the brand and the product is rated by Greenpeace and EPEAT.

Over the next five years our challenge is to stem the tide of e-waste being exported from the U.S. to the developing world, and develop a legal framework that will support mining and managing the mountains of toxic e-waste in the U.S. and in the developed world. According to Interpol the illegal trafficking of electronic waste (e-waste) is a serious crime and a growing international problem, posing an unacceptable environmental and health risk, in particular in developing countries in Africa and Asia. According to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson: “It’s time for us to stop making our trash someone else’s problem, start taking responsibility and setting a good example.”

Going forward our greater challenge will be to change the prevailing business models and digital media marketing narratives that ignore the toxic tide and rethink the design of next generation digital media devices, media products, data networks and data centers so that they are greener by design, eliminate conflict minerals, use less energy, last longer and can be disassembled, upgraded and recycled responsibly.

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Please use the comments area below to share your questions and suggestions. More importantly, use your social networks to engage the marketing and product development executives of digital media companies, device manufacturers, carriers and other key stakeholders — including elected officials and EPA regulators. Engage them in an informed dialogue on how we can communicate sustainably and decouple the production and consumption of digital media from the scourge of e-waste in a timely and effective manner.

MediaShift environmental correspondent Don Carli is senior research fellow with the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC) where he is director of The Sustainable Advertising Partnership and other corporate responsibility and sustainability programs addressing the economic, environmental and social impacts of advertising, marketing, publishing and enterprise communication supply chains. Don is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Industry Studies Program affiliate scholar and is also sustainability editor of Aktuell Grafisk Information Magazine based in Sweden. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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