New Focus on E-Waste Drives Higher Standards

This February, TV goes digital.  That means many Americans may decide to toss their older televisions in favor of new digital models.  And many might be hauling those old sets to a local recycler, like Commonwealth Computer Recycling.   CCR’s West Louisville warehouse is packed with old TVs and computer monitors…unwanted keyboards and clunky hard drives.  With the old Atari set in the back, it’s like a visual history of our nation’s consumption.Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Course this is just sheet steel….These are power supplies…You’ve got drives here….”

These are some of the piles and piles of components owner Jim Shields has stripped from old computers. Some contain valuable commodities he can sell, like the strip of gold on a circuit board.  Others contain toxic materials too dangerous to handle here. Take the stacks of old computer monitors.  Their screens contain pounds of powdered lead.

”This is our nemesis.  This is the one that challenges most people, challenges the industry quite frankly.  But there are people out there that can dispose of it properly,” says Shields.

There are no laws compelling Shields to recycle these monitors responsibly. The process is expensive. And since commodity prices for everything from steel to plastic have fallen, his profit margins are even slimmer. Shields could easily send a truck full of the less profitable items to the landfill.  Or he could take the big checks some foreign recyclers might write him.  They offer to buy up everything he’s got and ship it home for processing in a way that may not be so environmentally friendly. But he doesn’t.

“There’s a cost to protect human life, there’s a cost to protect the water we drink, there’s a cost to doing that when we’re dealing with these toxins.  And if you’re being offered a great deal of money for these materials, those fail-safes are not being paid for, those precautions are not in place,” Shields says.

Image courtesy of Commonwealth Computer RecyclingThat could soon change. With no federal legislation on the books, independent organizations have taken it upon themselves to develop standards for handling e-waste.  Barbara Kyle coordinates the Electronics Take-Back Coalition. She says the Environmental Protection Agency is just now developing some standards for e-waste recyclers.  And the Coalition was advising the agency.  But recently, Kyle says they withdrew from the process because they didn’t agree with the EPA’s direction.

“Unfortunately, they just really didn’t end up setting standards at a very high bar, and even refused to consider some issues that the environmentalists at the table thought were important issues,” says Kyle.

The development of a national infrastructure to handle electronics recycling might be one issue.  Jason Linnell founded the National Center for Electronics Recycling.  He says until that’s in place, individual states have been stepping in with their own laws and recycling programs.  For instance, Massachusetts bans anything with a cathode ray tube from landfills.  And Illinois will soon ban landfills from accepting any electronics.

“We just had an explosion of laws at the state level in the past two years, in 2007 and in 2008,” Linnell says.

Non-governmental organizations like the Basel Action Network, or BAN, are tackling the other side of the e-waste problem: the export of potentially toxic e-waste.   BAN will introduce the country’s first independent accreditation program for e-recyclers.  The idea is that a recycler’s process can be audited by a third party so consumers can be sure their old TVs and computers are safely dismantled and not dumped on a third world country.  Linnell says that with new state laws and these independent efforts, the momentum for stronger standards is underway. Image courtesy of

“The confluence of the state laws coming on line, the export issue getting more interest, and not to mention the transition to digital television will create a lot more interest in the issue of recycling,” says Linnell.

Linnell and others believe federal e-waste legislation could be coming next year.  Until then, there’s no sign the stream of used electronics is drying up.  Back at the Commonwealth Computer Recycling warehouse, Jim Shields explains:

“We as consumers tend to want what’s next, what’s next, what’s next.”

…Unless what comes into your warehouse is a mint condition Atari 2600 with a Frogger Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commonscartridge. That one, you keep.