What do we do with this?
I'm very interested in a number of environmental issues, but to be completely honest, I often don't seem to make the time to do the proper research myself. Recycling and waste management has been in this category. Lucky for me, the National Geographic magazine has an excellent article this month entitled "High-Tech Trash" that answers a number of questions I have had concerning what happens to waste, how the U.S. recycling system really works, and what I can do to help. I've included a brief synopsis of what I thought were the salient points, for those who are equally stretched for time, but I sincerely recommend a full reading.
A large section of the article focuses on the dangers of discarded electrical components (referred to as e-waste), which often contain lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and beryllium, among other toxins. A staggering number of computers, monitors, televisions, and cell phones end up in U.S. landfills or sit in storage, with much of the rest being shipped to developing countries, where the effects are abhorrent.
The article also covers recycling in general. Some illustrative graphs are included in the magazine but unfortunately not in the online version. One depicts the energy saved in the U.S. by using recycled as opposed to virgin material. Recycled aluminum, carpet (interesting, and heretofore completely unknown to me), and copper wire offer the largest energy savings, with LDP, PET, PETE, and HDPE plastics trailing closely behind. Recycling glass and most papers, however, results in relatively little energy savings. Even so, paper is the most commonly recycled item in the U.S. (in an absolute measurement of annual tons- I'd personally like to see it as a percentage of what is produced annually), while, for example, very little aluminum and copper are recycled.
The article even touches on excess packaging, a topic brought up in a post on this blog not too long ago by powstash. Indeed, packaging waste goes beyond what we see in the stores. Consider the products that come to us from abroad. These items likely have additional debris associated with overseas shipping; including wrapping film, bin liners, and shipping crates. In answer to powstash's question, *they* (being the EU) instated a Packaging and Packaging Waste directive in 1994 which calls for manufacturers, retailers and others in the product chain to share the recycling burdens of packaging associated waste, but it says nothing of reducing the waste in the first place. Moreover, the U.S. has been slow to adopt a similar stance.
While many may already be aware of the harm caused by our castaway devices, few know exactly what we can do to help. One method is to reduce our consumption in the first place.
Another involves choosing environmentally responsible products. Epeat.net provides an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) of desktop computers, notebooks and monitors. What can you do with the stuff you've already purchased? See below:
- Some charities provide donated cell phones to seniors and victims of domestic violence. Find donation bins at electronics stores and libraries. For options visit recyclewirelessphones.com or collectivegood.com.
- Wireless carriers also accept used phones.
- Most companies accept used computers from customers buying new ones (but generally only if the old computer is the same brand as the new one). Some office supply store chains accept old computers for a fee.
- The National Cristina Foundation connects computer and monitor donors with the needy (people with disabilities, at-risk students , and economically disadvantaged persons). See cristina.org for more details.
- Keep in mind that donating newer models can earn you a tax deduction. Inquire with the organization you choose to donate to.
- Retail stores selling rechargeable batteries will often accept used ones, including small sealed lead-acid batteries from power backups. See call2recycle.org for locations.
- Used toner cartridges can be refilled (for a fraction of the cost of new cartridges) at retail stores; including Walgreens, Staples, and Office Depot. However, there is some debate as to the reliability of refilled cartridges.
- The same cartridges can instead be traded-in (often at the same place you originally purchased the cartridge) for cash or discounts on subsequent purchases.
- Collecting used cartridges for recycling can even be a profitable fund-raiser for groups.
- Reputable recyclers will properly and safely scrap unusable electronics; however, they sometimes charge fees to do so.
- For a list of recycling companies that have promised not to export hazardous waste or dispose of it in landfills, check the website of the Basel Action Network, a group that advocates green solutions to e-waste issues: ban.org/pledge1.html.