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Computer interior
7.19.02
Science and Health:
Toxic E-Trash
More on This Story:
E-Cycling Facts and Laws

We've all heard of planned obsolescence, making things that are designed not to last. We throw away so much that our landfills are filling up with some pretty noxious stuff. The latest toxic twist is that your computers and TV sets have a poisonous afterlife.

Some 70 million computers already have been sent to landfills. In another five years, five hundred million more computers may be joining them. That's right: five hundred million more castoffs, haunted by toxic ghosts.

The issue of E-waste is global, especially since many countries ship their toxic leftovers overseas. This new crisis is leading to a variety of programs and legislative approaches.


Handling E-waste: Comparing the U.S and the E.U.

Europe has taken a much more active approach to the disposal of E-waste. All 15 countries of the E.U. adopted the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal or "Basel Ban." The Basel Ban decision effectively banned, as of 1 January 1998, all forms of hazardous waste exports from the 29 wealthiest most industrialized countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to all non-OECD countries. The United States continues its opposition to the Basel Ban.

Internally, the European Union has also made great strides toward fulfilling the promise of producer responsibility and "Green Design." In May 2001, the E.U. Parliament approved the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, making producers responsible for the management, recovery and recycling of E-waste. The U.S. has threatened to challenge the WEEE Directive through the WTO as an unnecessary barrier to trade.

Furthermore, the E.U. has also proposed the Restriction on the Use of Certain Hazardous Wastes (ROHS) that sets a gradual phase-out of certain hazardous materials in electrical and electronic equipment by January 1, 2008.

No legislation comparable to the WEEE Directive exists in the U.S., although there are several e-waste bills before Congress this term. In fact, just this week (July 19, 2002) California Congressman Mike Thompson has introduced a bill called the "Computer Hazardous Waste Infrastructure Program" in the House. You can read a draft of this legislation here (PDF file).

The Child PACT Act recently introduced in the U.S. House seeks to direct "prematurely retired" computers from the garbage dump to the classroom. Approval of the Child PACT Act should siphon off some hazardous E-waste.

  • Use our E-cycling resource map to find out about E-cycling laws in your state.

  • There are some other efforts to combat the threat from our ecyclables. Industry, private groups and government have started some exemplary programs here in the United States.


    U.S. Programs in the Works

    Many major manufacturers have started their own take back programs, usually with a fee for the consumer. The National recycling Coalition maintains a list on its Web site. This is a great way to check and see if your particular machine can have a less dangerous afterlife.

    Several U.S. organizations are deeply involved in electronics recycling. The Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition published a report earlier this year documenting how many electronics discarded in the United States are dismantled in Asia, with no consideration for human health or environmental safety. Both groups are now working on creating a list of U.S. recyclers who sign a pledge to, among other things, not export e-waste, nor send it to incinerators.

    Other organizations involved in electronics recycling include Californians Against Waste and Materials for the Future.For an E-cycling group in your neighborhood use our resource map.

    The Environmental Protection Agency has an initiative to support more environmentally friendly electronic designs.




    Old Phones and Batteries

    Computer monitors and televisions are not the only electronic devices known to contain hazardous materials. Most recyclable batteries contain toxic cadmium, including cell phone batteries. You can drop your batteries off at retail stores across the country. You can find out what to do with your old batteries at Recycle Your Rechargeable Batteries.

    Some critics say this program isn't as effective as it could be. Reports by the non-profit organization INFORM on battery recycling and information about cell phone recycling are available on INFORM's Web site.

    If your cell phone still works but you're finished with it there are several great programs that will give your phone to a victim of domestic violence. The phones help them have immediate contact with help in an emergency. You can find out where to drop off your phone from The Wireless Foundation.



    References: There are many laws and organizations designed to help keep you and your family safe. Keep an eye on your home and work environments at these Web sites:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for making your work environment safe. You can find on their web site a list of precautions required by your industry as well as a complete database of American businesses cited for OSHA violations.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency — Be sure to note that under the Superfund Reauthorization Act, the EPA and local governments must maintain registries of industrial chemical releases.
  • Scorecard.org monitors air and water quality and other environmental hazards zipcode by zipcode.
  • Use our local E-cycling resources map
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