Media Center – Press Coverage
Hey Mom, which bin does the e-waste go in?
Alison Rood, Special to The Chronicle
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
My teenage sons have learned to diligently recycle soda cans, milk cartons and junk mail, but occasionally one of them will bring me something and ask if it’s garbage.
By now they know that their mom will fish toilet paper rolls from the bathroom trash for recycling, so irresponsible tossing is not allowed. But the latest questionable item was the hard plastic casing that held a new electronic gadget, and I shuddered. Contemplating how to dispose of the electronic item that the piece was replacing was bad enough without feeling guilty about the unrecyclable packaging.
E-waste: that great big bugaboo. When I was a kid the only major electronic item in our home was a TV set, and it lasted most of my childhood. If it stopped working, a man in a uniform drove to our house, pulled out a toolbox and fixed it. Now, consumers are more apt to buy new than repair what is old.
My husband and I try to limit our electronic purchases to what is necessary, but over the years our home has become a repository for old computer parts, monitors, keyboards, VHS tapes and a couple of small TVs. A DVD player just went kaput, and although we had another, secondhand DVD player to replace it, the broken player was added to our stack of electronic debris. Like the “player to be named later,” our pile of obsolete electronics is “e-waste to be recycled someday.”
The problem is, we want to find a proper home for our electronic orphans. Our daily waste stream of recyclables includes paper, plastic, cardboard and glass, not lead, mercury, cadmium and polyvinyl chloride, which are a few of the hazardous substances found in personal computers and TV sets. I don’t worry about my empty pickle jar poisoning the earth if it’s improperly buried in a U.S. landfill or sent to a developing country and dumped, but e-waste is a different story.
It can be wearisome making sure that everything we do is correct, from eating the right foods, to raising kind, respectful children, to making eco-friendly decisions. Still, I felt duty bound to find out whether my local electronic recycler is a responsible steward, so I contacted our waste disposal service. I was directed to the electronic waste company with whom it contracts, and I diligently checked out the e-waste recycler’s Web page.
On the surface, its method of operation seemed fine, but unless I personally track the recycle stream of every single component in the electronic item I’m recycling (including the toxic waste), how can I be sure?
P.J. Johnson, a manager with the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, agreed.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of complex issues regarding responsible e-waste recycling,” he said. “It can be difficult to ensure that e-waste management is being handled responsibly. Some recyclers export hazardous waste overseas or send it to domestic prison operations in order to take advantage of cheap labor.”
Sue Chiang, the pollution prevention program director at the center, predicts that e-waste disposal problems will only get worse when U.S. television broadcasters switch to all-digital transmissions in February 2009.
“Anyone with an old analog TV (and no cable) will no longer be able to pick up TV stations on it unless they buy a converter box,” she said. “This will likely mean that a lot of people will want to just buy a newer flat-screen TV, and tons of old CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs will get trashed.
“Now is the time to encourage TV companies to take responsibility for their products,” she added.
Chiang has helped make the search for a conscientious recycler a lot easier by compiling a list, “San Francisco Bay Area Responsible Electronic Recycling.”
The recyclers she names have all taken the “Electronic Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship,” and according to the Basal Action Network Web page, this pledge represents “the most rigorous criteria for sustainable and socially just electronics recycling.”
The information for each recycler on the list includes names, addresses, telephone numbers, hours of operation, types of electronics accepted and fees, if any.
“I believe that the BAN list of companies (e-stewards) that have signed the pledge is the best resource available for the average consumer to locate a responsible recycler,” Chiang said.
“It is not 100 percent guaranteed that the e-recycler is doing everything perfectly, since it is not a certification program, but BAN does a fair amount of due diligence to screen the companies before they are listed as a pledge signer. BAN also removes companies from the list if there is evidence that they are not complying with the pledge.”
Once my husband and I deal with our old electronics, I plan to tackle our VHS tapes. I called a local record store and learned they’ll buy tapes that are in good condition for 30 to 50 cents each. If the tapes aren’t worthy of selling, or perhaps donating, the Center for Environmental Health list includes recyclers that should take them.
The only closet I’m not touching contains the record albums that my husband and I began collecting in the 1960s. Clunky old VHS tapes are one thing; LPs are another. The “Meet the Beatles” album I bought at the grocery store when I was 13 isn’t going anywhere.
— The Center for Environmental Health clip-and-save recycling information can be found at www.cehca.org/recycling-resources
— For general information about CEH: www.cehca.org
— Information about the Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship is at the Basal Action Network site: www.ban.org/pledge1.html
— A list of the toxins in PCs can be found in a March 21, 2007, article at www.engadget.com called “A PC is like an ogre; it’s full of toxic layers.”
— A list of hazardous chemicals in TVs can be found in a Dec. 23, 2007, article in the Baltimore Sun titled “The Hazards Inside the Tube” at www.baltimoresun.com.
– Alison Rood
Alison Rood is a frequent contributor to Home&Garden. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.