Today's Electronics, Tomorrow's Garbage Heap
Officials, activists worry about discarded TVs piling up after digital switch
The pile of televisions waiting for recycling at the Eastern Sanitation Yard in Baltimore - many of them wrapped in wood paneling popular in decades past - is likely to get larger today when the nation completes its switch to digital TV.
City officials hope so. The rate of electronic waste, or e-waste, is growing, but more than 80 percent of unwanted TVs and computers nationwide are still thrown into the trash, and watchdogs worry that more will end up there. Or that the e-waste, which contains a number of toxic materials, will not be recycled responsibly, a huge problem documented by activists and journalists.
Americans have been creating up to 50 million tons of e-waste in recent years as they upgrade their technology. Now that tens of millions of old TVs have little or no value, they, too, may get tossed.
Local officials aren't exactly sure how much more will come after the switch because all recycling is voluntary in Maryland, but they are ready, said Hilary Miller, Maryland's program manager for recycling and operations. "Many counties report that they have been seeing a lot of TVs coming in, but they don't anticipate being overwhelmed," she said.
Miller said most of the counties contract with in-state recyclers to dispose of their e-waste and officials have visited the facilities. But she acknowledged there isn't a permitting process or official inspection.
The only state law on the subject requires manufacturers selling electronics here to register and pay a $10,000 fee, which goes to counties as grants for recycling programs. Incomplete data for 2008 shows Maryland counties collected more than 7.4 million pounds of e-waste. More than 9 million pounds were collected in 2007.
Baltimore City contributed about a million pounds in 2008, more than double the amount in previous years, according to Tonya Simmons, recycling coordinator. It's hauled to Computer Donation Management Inc. in Southwest Baltimore, where electronics are broken down or refurbished. Some are given to charity.
"We have them pick up electronics three times a week now from the five city drop-off centers, and if we need them more, we make a phone call," she said. "Our goal is to keep this stuff out of the landfill."
That's a tough task, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which says the nationwide rate of recycling was about 18 percent for the 27 million TVs and 206 million computers disposed of in 2007. And e-waste is the nation's fastest growing municipal waste stream. Consumers bought 500 million electronic items last year, according to industry data.
Barbara Kyle, the coalition's national coordinator, said recycling goes up when there are strong laws and outreach, such as in Minnesota, where manufacturers must collect the same weight they sell in a year. Also helping are take-back programs launched by at least a half dozen major producers.
Keeping e-waste from being exported to poor countries overseas is even harder because federal laws are weak and enforcement is lax, Kyle said. For individuals to ensure proper recycling, they would have to follow each load through the process. Investigators have done that and often found the worst case scenario: e-waste in the bare hands of poor adults and children, who rip apart and burn it for gold, copper and other valuables while exposing themselves and the ground to mercury, lead, flame retardants, cadmium and other toxic substances.
"It's a big problem, frankly," Kyle said. "Proper disposal means not exporting it."
Federal law does not ban exporting, and those in the industry say not all exporting is bad. And federal law does cover export of lead-filled cathode-ray tubes, or CRTs, found in TVs and computer monitors. The law requires exporters to get permission from the Environmental Protection Agency and the receiving country before shipping. But if the CRTs are going to be reused, the exporters need only notify the EPA. Even this isn't always done, according to an August report by the Government Accountability Office.
Kyle said there is a cost to proper recycling and consumers should be wary of for-profit and even nonprofit groups that take items for free. Baltimore City and surrounding counties, for example, pay 5 cents a pound to have e-waste recycled.
The coalition and the Basel Action Network keep a list of companies pledging responsible recycling, and there are plans for a certification program next year. Kyle is also pushing for products to be designed with recycling in mind.
That is something the industry is supporting, according to congressional testimony last year by Eric Harris, associate counsel for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. He said disassembling e-waste is difficult. But many in foreign countries clamor to recycle it, responsibly and otherwise, because pay is good for raw materials, particularly in Asia, where many electronics are made. The group said producers should recycle their own household e-waste, and work on better design.
Dell already is, according to Mark Newton, senior manager of environmental sustainability there. The company takes back its own brand from consumers through a mail and drop-off system that includes some Goodwill stores. It has a global network of recyclers that it polices.
The company also is working on better design, largely by reducing materials and parts. Newton said the company has also reduced packaging and its carbon footprint by buying energy from renewable sources. He said some of the efforts save money and some, like the take-back program, are costly. (Dell makes the program profitable by selling services such as data scrubbing to commercial customers.)
But ultimately, Newton said, the equipment has Dell's name on it, and the company is trying to "find every way to get this stuff back."