Recycling electronic waste may not be best option


Alex Bess stood in line for hours just trying to get his hands on an iPad 2. It didn’t matter he already had the iPad 1; this was something new.

“I waited and waited until I finally got to the front of the line and then I got it,” Bess said with a smile on his face. “And I love it.”

His old iPad sits in his apartment in a closet next to some old stereos and a desktop computer.

“I think I’m going to keep it in there forever,” Bess said. “Maybe someday I’ll sell it, but I would never just throw it away.”

While Bess treasures his old electronics, some are more willing to part with them.

“My family has gotten rid of so many electronics,” Bess said. “I just decided to stop trashing them because I heard horrible things about throwing away computers and things like that. They really can destroy the environment.”

Electronics can have damaging effects on soil, water and air. Gadgets such as televisions, CRT monitors, LCD displays, laptops and speakers are completely different from other trash products.

“There are often special collection days where a county will sponsor electronic waste days,” said Sam Schroyer, an environmental scientist for the State of Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “But the pick- up is really just a drop-off before they take it somewhere else.”

That somewhere else is often a developing third world country.

“Those areas, some parts of China and some parts of Africa, are really getting hit with environmental impacts,” Schroyer said. “The heavy metals are melting out and the plastics being burned are causing problems. The local communities don’t necessarily see that, but it does have an impact on them eventually.”

That’s because air pollution is a global effect of electronic recycling.  Schroyer said other than the environmental impact, the costs involved with collecting and recycling electronics could be a local issue.  However, he said the benefits outweigh the costs.

“If [electronics] are not recycled, the landfills will fill up earlier and we also don’t want those materials that can be hazardous in the landfills,” Schroyer said. “There are also a lot of valuables in those electronics that we want recycled.”

Consumer Reports says Americans threw away about 3 million tons of electronics in 2003. Some 700 million cell phones have already been thrown away worldwide, with 130 million disposed of in 2005 alone.

“People throw away their electronics probably because of ease and lack of knowledge available for their old electronics,” said Scott Campbell of Electronic Recycling Solutions in Utah. “I think education is a key in getting people to know about recycling. The Internet is a good source and the state of Utah has put out some information on electronics and what you should do with them and why.”

Some of the toxins that can leak out of old computer chips and other electronic devices include lead, copper, nickel and zinc.

To avoid contamination of landfills, Campbell suggested people recycle their old digital goods, despite the negative effects it may have in some foreign communities.

According to Meredith Carlie, marketing coordinator for Simply Mac, recycling electronic waste involves separating metals from plastics and shredding electronic devices into confetti-like pieces.

“It’s really fast and quick,” she said. “They can then melt it down and resell the plastics. They take out the parts that are toxic and dispose of them elsewhere.”

About 80 percent of discarded electronics are currently sent to a handful of developing countries where people dismantle the gadgets for parts and metals. This job is dangerous and doesn’t pay much, not to mention it increases life-threatening water and soil pollution in those countries and air pollution globally.

However, locally some electronic waste never makes it to a third world country or a landfill.

“In Utah, in the more rural areas, we are seeing electronics dumped in the desert,” Schroyer said. “People are taking TV’s out and using them for target practice and in those cases, the environmental damage causes localized environmental issues.”

Although the majority of electronic recycling does take some of the problems related to e-waste away from home, most environmental safety researchers agree there is a way to end the hazards associated with it.

“The solution [to electronic waste] is not recycling materials, but reusing devices and components,” said Mike Elgan, a columnist who has written many articles on electronic waste. “The only environmentally friendly gadget is the one that’s never built. Instead of making the full range of devices, from high end to low end, the world needs to embrace the concept of buying used.”

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