Electronic Waste – No Easy Solution

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Photo courtesy of Greenpeace

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace

Let’s face it – it’s difficult to run a business these days without investing in a significant amount of electronic equipment. Computers, printers, photocopying and fax machines, cell phones and PDAs… they are all crucial pieces in maintaining communication with clients and suppliers, not to mention staying on top of the latest business trends. But as technology improves at an increasingly rapid rate, what do you do with that outdated laptop or cell phone?

Throwing away used electronics poses a number of significant environmental harms. First, there are the nasty substances – like lead, mercury, brominated flame retardants, and in some cases cadmium – that leach from landfills to contaminate groundwater and soil. Second, trashing your ewaste takes plastics and precious metals – such as copper, gold, silver, and palladium – out of circulation. Not only does the waste never resurface as uable material, it also forces the further mining of these substances for the production of new electronics. Incineration is just as bad – it releases all those heavy metals into the air, where they wreak havoc on our lungs and bioaccumulate in our food chain. So, you say to yourself, that vintage computer that still runs Windows 95 – I’ll recycle it. Right?

Not so fast. Ewaste reycling programs are riddled with problems of their own – primarily, the issue that most ewaste is sent overseas to be recycled in countries with weak environmental protections – China, for example, where whole towns face health hazards like air pollution, water contamination, lead poisoning, cancer-causing dioxins, and higher rates of miscarriage. And since the United States has refused to sign onto the Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce the transfer of hazardous waste between nations, the transfer of American ewaste – or the “effluent of the affluent” – to these countries is entirely legal.

So what’s an environmentally and socially responsible business to do? Glad you asked.

  • First, commit to not junking your ewaste – it’s illegal in many states to send this waste to the landfill, anyway.
  • Second, consider donating your old electronics. Many non-profits are happy to use slightly outdated equipment, and there are plenty of resources out there to help you wipe your computer’s memory and make sure that your proprietory information is kept under wraps. And many women’s shelters welcome the donation of your old cell phones, which can become emergency lines of communication for women in need.
  • Third, check into your local ewaste recycling options. The New York Times reported yesterday that the state of Maine, for example, requires that computer and television manufacturers recycle their products for free. The National Center for Electronics Recycling is working to develop national – and safe – electronics recycling infrastructure within the U.S. And the Shelter Alliance can resell or recycle cell phones – with strict environmental commitments – and even offers a revenue-generating option for non-profits who are willing to collect cell phones within their communities. Wherever you recycle your ewaste, make sure to obtain information on their environmental policies and whether or not they ship waste overseas.
  • Lastly, support national policies that encourage manufacturers to encorporate design for the environment. Mandatory recycling services, for example, are likely to encourage manufacturers to design their products in a way that faciliatates easy and safe recycling. But piecemeal state policies are hurting manufacturers, who struggle to meet different standards in different states. Federal law could change all that.

More at the U.S. EPA.

Elizabeth Liedel is a joint degree candidate at Duke University, pursuing an MBA at the Fuqua School of Business and a Master of Environmental Management at the Nicholas School for the Environment. She is on the Executive Committee of the Duke Microfinance Leadership Initiative and is active in...
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