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August 10, 2010

E-waste: The Growing Problem in Landfills, part 1

Electronic products collected at the drives in Champaign County are processed by Vintage Tech Recyclers,

The amount of discarded electronic products is increasing at an alarming rate and has created a pressing local and international issue.

By Kim Hawthorne, Local Correspondent

Tue, Aug 10 2010 at 4:57 PM EST

Last weekend, residents of Champaign County recycled their unwanted electronics at a free collection sponsored by the cities of Champaign, Urbana and Savoy. For the past several years, the cities have hosted these collections to provide residents with a convenient way to safely dispose of their electronic waste.

This weekend’s electronics recycling collection was the county’s third this year. Between two earlier drives in February and May, Champaign County collected over 121 tons of electronics for recycling.

While local communities have recently made efforts to divert electronic waste from landfills, such efforts may not be enough to effectively address a growing and international electronic waste issue.

What is e-waste?

With ever-changing technology, new products constantly render older ones obsolete. Since the growth of personal electronics in the 1980s, proper management of electronic waste — or e-waste — has become a necessity.

In the United States, the term “e-waste” refers to computers, monitors, televisions, cell phones, printers, scanners, VCR and DVD players and video game consoles, as defined by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 42 percent of electronic products sold between 1980 and 2004 have been discarded, the majority of which were not recycled. From 1999 to 2004, the recycling rate for such products stagnated at just 15 to 20 percent.

What’s worse is that many of these unwanted electronics still work. The Consumer Electronics Association estimated that of the 304 million electronics — including computers, televisions, VCRs, monitors and cell phones — removed from American households in 2005, two-thirds were in working condition.

While the number of electronics recycled has increased in recent years, the percent recycled remains the same when compared to the total amount of electronic waste, which has also increased.

Electronic products have become the fastest growing portion of the solid waste stream, currently accounting for about two percent of solid waste in landfills, according to the ISTC.

Upon disposal, these products pose both environmental and human health risks. Many contain lead, mercury and other potentially harmful materials that can leak from landfills into the groundwater or be released into the air when incinerated.

Because of these risks, 22 states have passed legislation since May 2009 to regulate e-waste recycling and ban the disposal of certain types of electronics, according to the ISTC.

Illinois became one such state when it passed the Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act in 2008. The law will ban certain electronic products — including computers, computer monitors, printers and televisions — from landfills beginning in January 2012.

According to the EPA, over 800 communities across the United States have organized recycling events to divert electronic waste from landfills. But after these drives, what happens to the waste?

How recycling works

Electronic products collected at the drives in Champaign County are processed by Vintage Tech Recyclers, an electronics recycling company based in Romeoville, Ill. According to its website, 60 percent of the electronics that move through the program are reused — which generally means they are sold as-is, remanufactured or refurbished.

About 38 percent of the remaining electronics are reverted back to raw materials. VTR dismantles these products, sorts them and sends them to factories that will extract the valuable materials from the waste.

According to William Bullock, professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois and an affiliate of the ISTC, many discarded electronic products retain value in their raw materials.

“It’s a real tragedy that (electronics) go and get covered up with dirt someplace where they’re not … a value to anyone,” Bullock said.

Many products contain gold, silver and other precious metals that can be recovered. Such costly metals contribute to over 70 percent of the metal-related value in cell phones, according to the ISTC.

While the process of extracting these materials requires energy inputs that result in carbon emissions, the costs are generally lower than those required during primary production processes, when the materials are mined from the earth.

For example, the extraction of one kilogram of aluminum from electronic products requires less than one-tenth of the energy needed to extract that same amount of aluminum from nature, according to a 2009 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme.

Recycling and reusing unwanted electronic products seems like an obvious solution to the growing electronic waste problem. However, much of this process may not be exactly what well-meaning citizens have in mind when they drop off their old computers and televisions at their local recycling drive.

Part two in this series will investigate the downsides to current electronics recycling practices and how e-waste has become an international issue.