By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

This holiday season millions of people will be surprised by their loved ones with new smart phones, game consoles, lap tops, DVRs and televisions and a gazillion other electronic gadgets.

Sims' workers extract valuable components from electronics, before parts are sent for shredding and sorting.

Americans, especially, who bought $11.4 million in electronics just over the Black Friday weekend, are hopelessly in like with their computerized convenience items, gaming equipment and ever-expanding retinue of TVs.

But with the joy of ringing in the new, comes a new responsibility to not trash the old – especially when it comes to electronics.

Those outgoing TVs, computers, printers, VCRs and game consoles all that need to end up with a responsible recycler, not in the landfill and not even in your garage.

Here are a few reasons why: Lead, cadmium, barium, nickel, copper, arsenic, chromium and brominated flame retardants.

Almost everything in that old TV is either toxic and needs to be kept out of the environment, or is too valuable to be discarded. Ditto your retired CPU, Nintendo and fancy (for 1990) fleet of home phones. Aside from the obvious precious and toxic metals that require special handling and are destined to be reincarnated, even much of the plastic casing surrounding these electronics can be sorted and recycled.

Sims Recycling Solutions, the world’s largest solid waste recycler, collected 880 million pounds of old electronics from its global operations last year, and that’s “still only a fraction of the electronic scrap that’s generated in the world,” says company president Steve Skurnac.

“A lot of that waste is still not being environmentally recycled,” he says. It’s still being dumped in landfills, where toxic components are leach into the soil and groundwater, or worse.

Gadgets in, gadgets out

Americans throw away more than 3 million tons of electronics every year, and only about 15 percent are recycled, according to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, which advocates for stricter “take back” laws and better design to improve and facilitate e-recycling or e-cycling.

“Recycling is not as fundamental a concept for consumers in the U.S. yet, as it is in some other places, like Europe or Japan,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the coalition. “But consumers are starting to pay attention and look for recycling options.”

A child in China winds up as the victim of e-waste dumping.

Even when US electronics are recycled, large volumes continue to be dumped overseas, where they’re improperly or partially recycled, creating mountains of trash, polluted streams and toxic air.

Kyle reports on the ETBC website that 88 percent of children have tested positively for lead poisoning in Guiyu, China, in a region known as the e-waste capital of China.

China Daily reports that the main reason for high levels of lead among Guiyu’s children is the lead dust from e-waste, “which floats in invisible clouds about a meter above the ground – that is, around the same height as children’s noses and mouths.” Some exposure occurs from the dust that the parents, who work in the e-waste facilities, bring home on their clothes.”

Children working (yes, working)  at large e-waste site in Agbogboshie, Ghana, also have experienced a host of documented health issues, according to Kyle, who cites a study by the Danish DanWatch.

“According to the report, children who work at the e-waste dumpsite at Agbogboshie visit the nearby health clinic regularly with cuts, coughs, headaches, upper respiratory problems, rashes and burns, which are attributed to their work with the waste. The toxic fumes from the burning process and the glass and metals from the dismantling cause problems for the children…

“A study of blood and urine from adults working in or living nearby the dumpsites found high levels of lead and other heavy metals. (Children were not studied.)”

“Ghana officials have called for the nation’s contributing to the e-waste problems, many European nations and the US, to quit dumping defunct equipment in Africa. They’d rather receive working or reclaimable electronics.”

These human and environmental costs have been a well-documented outgrowth of the fast-growing electronics markets in developed nations, as recyclers who lacked credentials but saw an opportunity sought a quick return.

This system exploited labor in needy nations and threatened the health of whole regions, because the electronics were “processed in a very crude fashion that caused harm to the environment,” Skurnac explained in an interview last week.

Skurnac wants Americans to understand that they have other options; that they can recycle their electronics with Sims or other reputable recyclers, capable of properly and safely disassembling electronics scrap to extract as much value as possible.

People simply need to verify whom their dealing with by asking where their outgoing electronics will be sent, and they can also check a recyclers certifications.
San Francisco-based Sims, like other reputable recyclers, opens its facilities for outside review and accreditation, such as the internationally accepted ISO 14001 certification that assures it’s following safe, sustainable practices.

A work room at Sims Recycling.

Sims Recycling Solutions operates several locations around the world, including many in Europe and 14 in North America, where it employs 800 people in skilled, “quality” green jobs, Skurnac said.

With a well-trained staff and the right equipment, e-recycling can be efficient and profitable, he says, saving landfills, waterways and landscapes from a blight of electronic carcasses and tailings.

It’s a more technical business than people may realize.

Highly specialized, high-dollar equipment is used to handle mercury safely; to remove lead from the glass of old TV screens: to cope with the multitude of plastics used in electronics and to extract the tiny, and reusable, dollops of precious metals from increasingly nano-sized phones and music players.

Electronics, says Skurnac, contain a “cornucopia of heavy metals.”

Improving e-waste recycling rates

Sims partners with charities, cities and counties to try to build collection rates in the United States, which lags behind Europe where the recycling ethic is better embedded. (Only about one-quarter of the 880 million pounds collected annually comes from the US, even though it’s by far the largest consumer of electronics.)

Typically, outreach involves holding collection events or arranging for satellite pick up locations in partnership with a city or county.

These programs recognize that recycling electronics — big or small — is not as simple as walking a bin of milk jugs and soup cans to the curb. Often, consumers hoard the bigger items, consigning them to the attic for lack of knowing how to get them recycled. They may let personal electronics  linger, for fear that private information will be stolen. (Sims and others offer erasing services.)

Even though Sims Recycling centers take drop offs during business hours, Skurnac says he understands that not everyone can or will make the extra effort to ferry their clunky electronics to a central location.  Hence the collection days, arranged with civic partners.

One thing we have seen from the state programs is that if you make recycling convenient, and you let people know about it, they WILL actually recycle their old products,” says Kyle of the Take Back coalition. “We are seeing much higher recycling volumes in the states which have laws which either set collection goals or convenience requirements.”

Kyle points to Oregon and Washington where “Producer Responsiblity” laws have driven electronics recycling rates up, to around six pounds per capita, the highest in the nation.

Twenty-four states now have these laws, which mandate that manufacturers help with the re-collection of old electronics. Except in California, where laws have been in place for several years (and recycling rates also are high), these laws are only a few years old. But they do cover about 60 percent of the population, pushing electronics makers to take ownership of their products — at all their life stages.

Retailers still need to help fill the gap, Kyle says, because they are in prime locations for consumers.

Best Buy's take back program motto: "No Matter Where You Bought It We'll Recycle It"

“We need to make it as easy to recycle these products as it is to buy them,” she said. “One of the things happening in Europe is that the retailers are required under their laws to play a role in the take-back infrastructure. Here, the retailers fight any laws that require them to be part of the collection infrastructure, although Best Buy has a voluntary take-back program in all their stores.” (Staples takes back Dell computers.)

Manufacturers are doing a better job, but also need to step it up by assuring that those who craft and conceive of electronics consider what happens when product expires, Skurnac says.

Today’s electronics designers have recycling on their radar, he says, recounting how one manufacturer relieved recyclers of a big burden by reducing its retinue of plastics from 27 to 7.

Gone from the market (though not necessarily recycled yet) are items that once harbored pounds of lead, or contained needlessly high levels of mercury, like certain home scanners that relied on super-bright lights loaded with the toxic metal.

Still, electronics makers can push their engineers to balance improved function against environmental impact.

While the producer responsibility laws help push collection right now, the next frontier will be to get manufacturers living by a new paradigm of environmental stewardship — using the reclaimed plastics and metals from their old electronics in their new products.

It’s starting to happen, with products like Samsung’s Replenish phone and a variety of products encased in recycled plastic made from shredded reclaimed remains.

When this is the norm, instead of the green exception, electronics be able to claim closed loop systems.

“What has to happen, in our opinion, in the marketplace, the manufacturers have to play a bigger role than they’re currently playing,” Skurnac says. “They have to reuse these (recycled) materials in new products.”

For now, consumers can help by taking stock of their beloved retired e-bling in this season of giving.

“Everybody is going to get a bunch of new stuff, and that’s great,” Skurnac said. “We just want to say: ‘You know what, recycle it. Ask a few questions and make sure its recycled in a fair fashion.’ ”


  • Learn more about e-recycling at the Take Back Coaltion’s Recycle It Right webpage.

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