The EPA has just released its “2009 Facts and Figures” on Municipal Solid Waste generated in the U.S. This new report shows that in 2009, as in previous years, the vast majority (82.3%) of e-waste discarded in the U.S. is still ending up in our landfills and incinerators, with only 17.7 percent going to recyclers. This is a slight increase from 2008, when 13.6 was diverted for recycling. But it’s far lower than the recycling rate reported for the whole municipal waste stream, which was 33.8%.
Despite its name, this “municipal solid waste report” includes discards from consumers and businesses (but not industrial or hazardous waste). Residential waste accounts for 55-65% of the total wastes generated. This report groups electronics in with other “durable goods.” There’s not much more detail about e-waste volumes provided by the EPA – this is the only regular report issued that itemizes electronic waste.
Why E-waste doesn’t belong in the trash
Toxics inside. There are several reasons why electronic waste doesn’t belong in the trash. First, electronics typically contain many toxic chemicals, like lead, mercury, beryllium, cadmium, arsenic, and halogenated flame retardants in the plastics. Products sent to landfills will eventually break down over time. There are concerns that these toxins could leach into groundwater eventually. While some will argue that landfills linings will prevent this, it’s important to understand that in many areas, landfills were built before rules requiring double lining came into effect. Plus some experts argue that any landfill will fail eventually – maybe in 100 years, but eventually. Therefore, it’s inappropriate to bury these toxic chemicals for future generations to deal with.
Sometimes e-waste is sent to incinerators, particularly waste-to-energy incinerators. Here, the public health concern is about both the toxics being emitted into the atmosphere (especially the dioxins that can be emitted when plastics with halogenated flame retardants are burned) as well as the toxic “slag” left over – the stuff that didn’t get burned, or was “captured” as part of the emissions cleaning process.
Recoverable materials. Another reason not to throw electronics into the trash is that there are recoverable materials in them. Many of the metals used in electronics can be recovered for manufacturing new products. What a waste of a non-renewable resource to bury them in landfills. There have been reports from time to time (when scrap metal prices are high) of interest in “mining” our landfills – excavating buried items to recover the metals.
Limited landfill space. Electronics also take up a lot of room in the landfills – think of those big tube TVs and monitors, printers, VCRs, etc. Some states or counties are running out of room in their landfills, and its expensive to build new ones.
We Need Better Manufacturer Takeback Efforts
What will change these pathetic recycling numbers? One game changer would be for the manufacturers do more to take back and recycle their old products. Most of the computer and TV companies now have takeback programs, and they have policies in support of taking back and recycling their old products. But the volumes collected in most of these voluntary programs are very low, because the companies don’t make them convenient enough for people to really use them. We saw lots of Cs and Ds (and some F’s) in our Recycling Report Card, published last fall, partly due to low volumes. Just offering a mailback program isn’t enough – most people won’t use them. Most consumers are more willing to drop off old products at collection sites, convenient to where they are already going.
It’s disappointing, but the reality is that the most efforts by the manufacturer to recycle their products occur in the states that have strong laws mandating takeback – laws with either collection goals or convenience requirements. States like WA, OR, and MN. States with no takeback laws, or even those with laws that let the companies decide how hard to try at takeback, see very little manufacturer effort, with the notable exception of Dell and to some extent Samsung, who have developed collection networks even in states where the law does not require it. A good example is Texas, which has the “weak” law saying that computer companies must have takeback programs, but provides no benchmarks or drivers for collection. In 2009, Dell collected 85% of the total volume collected under that program. Most companies made no effort whatsoever. Even HP,which has just as many products coming back in the waste stream as Dell, collected only about 4.5%.
States that want to see these waste numbers change – to see e-waste get diverted from the trash and into recycling – need to pass strong laws, or strengthen their existing laws – to make sure that the manufacturers who make and profit from selling their products in the state are responsible for making sure these products are collected and responsibly recycled when consumers are done with them. Once the volumes coming back are high enough, that will serve as an important incentive for these companies to think about changing their designs to make the products more recyclable, and less toxic.