Thursday, 17 August 2006
Q&A on High Tech Trash
with author Elizabeth Grossman

1. How can something high tech be called “trash”? Isn’t high tech “clean,” compared to smokestack industries? Image
2. How pervasive are the problems you identify? In every computer? Every TV? Every cell phone and microwave? Image
3. Does it matter where various electronics are manufactured, or by which company? Image
4. Can these toxics hurt us in our own homes and offices?  Image
5. Do we have the science and data we need to properly assess the environmental and health problems posed by e-waste?  Image
6. What are the environmentally “worst” components found inside electronics, and why?
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7. What happens when an old computer is simply put in the trash? Image
8. Where do our recycled electronics ultimately end up? Who handles them?
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9. What makes the various chemicals and metals found in electronics so toxic? Image
10. Are there ways we could manufacture electronics without these toxic components?
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11. How do recycled electronics affect ground surfaces and watersheds? Image
12. Is the answer governmental regulation? Industry standards? Image
13. What sort of actions can individuals take to address this problem? Image
14. Where does the U.S. stand on the e-waste issue, compared to other countries? Image
15. How did you first get involved in the problem of e-waste?  Image


Q: How can something high tech be called “trash”? Isn’t high tech “clean,” compared to smokestack industries?
A: High tech electronics bring us cyberspace and enable telecommunications that seem to erase geographical boundaries, so we tend to ignore the impacts their production and disposal have on the environment, particularly because they perform these powerful tasks so quietly and are so sleek and compact. But producing these digital devices requires hundreds of different materials and like any other manufacturing industry, high tech has waste products—many of them toxic.

What I set out to do is explore the environmental footprint created by producing and disposing of high tech electronics—which turned out to be much larger and more complex than I anticipated.


Q: How pervasive are the problems you identify? In every computer? Every TV? Every cell phone and microwave?
A: Because high tech electronics all contain copious amounts of plastic and virtually all high tech electronics now entering the waste stream will contain some lead, flame retardants and various heavy metals, if improperly disposed of they have the potential to create environmental and health hazards. Ideally, no high tech electronics—nothing containing circuit boards, plastics, wires and display screens—should be put in the trash, destroyed by hand or otherwise dumped.


Q: Does it matter where various electronics are manufactured, or by which company?
A: Beginning in 2006, all electronics sold in the European Union have to meet legislative requirements that restrict certain uses of lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury and some brominated flame retardants. While this will not eliminate these substances, it does mean that any manufacturer selling into Europe has to meet these requirements—and given the global nature of the high tech industry, it may be much more cost effective for manufacturers to change all products than to manufacture equipment for any specific country.

So these European standards are essentially becoming (with some exceptions) global standards. However, nearly all the high tech equipment now entering the waste stream predates any such restrictions and contains more hazardous materials than electronics just now being sold.


Q: Can these toxics hurt us in our own homes and offices?
A: For the most part, the toxic materials used in high tech electronics do not pose a hazard while the equipment is intact and properly used. But when physically damaged or improperly disposed of—smashed, burned in open air, or deposited in landfills or dumps—toxics are released.

And it now appears that some flame retardants used in the plastic components are being released from electronic equipment while it’s still intact. These flame retardants, primarily polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been found in human blood and breast milk, and in food purchased throughout the United States (and elsewhere around the world). Though human testing has not yet been done on a significant scale, PBDEs are known to have detrimental health effects on animals.


Q: Do we have the science and data we need to properly assess the environmental and health problems posed by e-waste?
A: There is much scientific work still to be done to understand the health and environmental impacts of many of the chemicals used in manufacturing high tech electronics. We also need much more precise quantification of the volumes of high tech equipment being discarded and recycled—and much better tracking of the fate of used and obsolete electronics.

That said, based on the considerable existing knowledge of both, we know that depositing used high tech products in dumps, landfills and incinerators, or allowing them to be recycled by hand, with open burning, or to degrade is damaging to the environment and human health. And the growing scientific understanding of many chemicals used in high tech manufacturing points, increasingly, to their toxicity and pervasiveness.


Q: What are the environmentally “worst” components found inside electronics, and why?
A: What comes to mind first are CRTs—cathode ray tubes, the screens and what’s behind them on devices such as traditional desktop computer monitors and televisions. CRTs have leaded glass that also contains cadmium, barium and possibly phosphorus. A monitor may contain as much as eight pounds of lead. When broken, CRTs can release damaging amounts of lead and other heavy metals. Lead dust is easily inhaled, transported on clothes and inadvertently ingested, and recent research indicates lead may be toxic at far lower levels than allowed by current safety standards.

The beryllium elements used in some circuit boards can also be hazardous for recyclers: if crushed or broken they can release beryllium dust, which is highly toxic and can cause an incurable lung disease. In terms of chemicals involved in the manufacture, solvents like trichloroethylene have proven particularly persistent and more hazardous to health than previously thought. And the whole suite of brominated flame retardants that are, and have been, used in electronics are proving to be a growing environmental and health hazard.


Q: What happens when an old computer is simply put in the trash?
A: If a computer is put into a household garbage can or a business’s dumpster and carted off with the rest of the trash, it may be picked out of the heap (along with other appliances) by the carting company and taken to an electronics recycler, but this is a big “if.” If the computer is damaged or buried in with other refuse, it will likely go to a landfill or incinerator with the rest of the trash unless the municipality or state has a law specifically prohibiting such dumping. A handful of states have laws barring CRTs from municipal dumps but no such laws cover all electronics.


Q: Where do our recycled electronics ultimately end up? Who handles them?
A:Here’s a short answer: If sent to a responsible recycler, a non-working computer (for example) will be dismantled and its hazardous components (batteries, lead-containing CRT, any beryllium element and some mercury lamps) removed and sent for special handling, which means recycling or disposal. Depending on where it’s recycled, a number of the plastics will be sent for recycling, as will easily separated metals. The circuit boards, which is where the valuable metals in a computer are located, will end up in a shredder and eventually various ovens and smelters so these metals can be separated.

The answer to this question becomes much more complicated if the used electronics go to a recycler who is really a scrap trader or broker in used electronics who sells equipment and components into a global market. This is how a computer from the IRS can wind up on a scrap heap in China or one from a Wisconsin school can end up destined for a dump in Nigeria.


Q: What makes the various chemicals and metals found in electronics so toxic?
A: The chemicals and metals found in electronics are not toxic simply because they are in high tech products; many of these substances are used in a host of consumer products. But high tech electronics are much more material-intensive than just about all other consumer products—more different chemicals, metals and plastics go into making them than just about anything else we use on a regular basis.

And high tech electronics and components are produced in numbers that far outstrip any other manufactured products and are produced globally, increasing the importance of ensuring the safety of manufacturing process—to workers, communities and the environment. Since high tech electronics have become virtually ubiquitous and have such a short life-span, and contain so many different materials, they present a particular challenge in terms of disposal.


Q: Are there ways we could manufacture electronics without these toxic components?
A: It is unlikely and probably unrealistic to think that all hazardous and toxic materials can
be eliminated from the manufacture of high tech electronics and from high tech electronics
themselves. However, the use of many such substances can be greatly reduced and substitutes found for many as well. Manufacturing processes and products can be designed to reduce or eliminate the discharge of hazardous materials into the environment. Many such changes are underway.


Q: How do recycled electronics affect ground surfaces and watersheds?
A: It’s not “recycled” electronics (assuming recycling is done properly under
environmentally controlled conditions) that affect ground surfaces and watersheds but improperly disposed of and primitively recycled electronics that do. Whether it’s a landfill in the United States, China, or Nigeria, if computer monitors, circuit boards and other electronics are left to degrade where they are exposed to water, sunlight and soil, their chemical and metal contents will eventually leach into surface and groundwater, and particulates enter the atmosphere.

In China and Nigeria, for example, there is routine open burning of junked electronics, which releases many toxics that then travel global air currents. The rudimentary recycling of e-waste that’s been taking place in China, for example, does release toxics as it is done in the open with waste products dumped in local rivers and landfills. The manufacture of high tech electronics has, historically, released copious amounts of toxics into groundwater though wastewater discharges, spills and leaks. Most such discharges occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, but their impacts—on the environment and human health—persist.


Q: Is the answer governmental regulation? Industry standards?
A: Both, are needed, as without government regulation—enforceable health and safety Standards—it is difficult to adequately protect public health and safety. Such measures should cover both the manufacturing process—what goes into high tech electronics (to protect both workers and the environment) and disposal.

Many such standards and regulations exist or are being developed, but government regulations now vary widely from place to place. International government-level studies have been done showing that health and the environment are best protected when a combination of voluntary measures and incentives, regulatory or financial, are used. Voluntary measures alone simply don’t work as well.


Q: What sort of actions can individuals take to address this problem?
A: You can start by making sure you, and your workplace, children’s school, local government et al., dispose of used and obsolete electronics properly: get them back to the manufacturer for recycling, to a responsible recycler or donate them to a legitimate reuse organization or other second user. Properly disposing of an old printer, fax machine, computer or cell phone may well take more time than you expect. If so, and you’re motivated, send a note to the manufacturer and to your state and congressional representatives telling them you are concerned about the impacts of e-waste and that you would like there to be a convenient, safe, and responsible way to get electronics into recycling or legitimate reuse.


Q: Where does the U.S. stand on the e-waste issue, compared to other countries?
A: The United States lags behind most other industrialized countries in managing its e-waste. Unlike the European Union or Japan, the U.S. has no national system—voluntary or Regulatory—for managing e-waste. A handful of states have recently passed e-waste legislation (some ban CRTs from landfills, some require recycling of certain items and some require manufacturers to participate in recycling) and a number of communities have limited ongoing or pilot e-waste recycling programs.

Major electronics manufacturers now have take-back for recycling programs for some of their equipment, but this information is often hard to find and the programs can be confusing to sort through and cumbersome to use. The U.S. is also one of the only developed countries that has not yet ratified the Basel Convention that bans the export of hazardous waste from richer to poorer countries.

The net result is that only about 10 percent of all the U.S. e-waste is now being recycled and large amounts of e-waste are exported for inexpensive, environmentally hazardous recycling or dumping overseas.


Q: How did you first get involved in the problem of e-waste?
A: In 2000, I researched and wrote a report for a local river conservation group here in Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper, looking at the pollution that was entering the river directly (what comes in directly, via discharged wastewater as opposed to runoff from streets etc). Using EPA data we discovered that the majority of this pollution was then coming from high tech and related manufacturing industries. Surprised by this, I decided to delve further into the story and explore the environmental impacts of the high tech industry and its products.