Keeping Electronics Out of the Trash

  • Although China banned electronic waste, illegal operations still take American waste to retrieve precious metals. (Photo by Ted Land)

A lot us recycle, but what about that “less-than-smart-phone” you just replaced with the latest model? What about those batteries in the clock? As Tanya Ott reports, sometimes it’s hard to know how to recycle electronics.


Photos of where our electronic cast asides can end up


Where to recycle rechargeable batteries and cell phones


Where to recycle other electronics


Where to recycle single-use batteries

Transcript

Up to half of all Americans say they recycle common materials, like paper, plastic and glass, “all of the time.” Husband and wife Don Dickman and Kathleen McEvvit live in Laingsburg, Michigan.

“Well, we recycle glass, we recycle metal, we recycle plastic, magazines, paper. I’m trying to think if we recycle any electronics. I don’t think we have. No, not lately.”

When it comes to electronics, many of us need a little nudge… say, from the kids from the television hit Glee.

Clip from Glee: “Test, test one… oh hold on we got a dead mic (batteries clanking in trash can) you know you’re not supposed to throw batteries out, right?”


A new survey
from the consumer electronics marketplace Retrevo finds that more than 60% of respondents nationwide don’t recycle their old electronic gadgets.

Clip from Glee: “Does it count as recycling if you collect old batteries to throw at clowns?”

Many people say they don’t know how to recycle electronics, or that e-recycling isn’t available where they live.

Most people recycle their old cell phones and batteries at retail outlets like Radio Shack, Home Depot and Staples. Jeff Morris owns the Cartridge World franchise in Ann Arbor.

“We take in batteries for recycling and then they get sent off. Usually I send them over to the local batteries plus store or there are some local charities that can actually make a little money with them if we send them there.”

Morris says he’s lost track of how many batteries and toner cartridges his shop recycles each year. It’s a lot.

Lisa Pollack is with the nonprofit group Call2Recycle, a free rechargeable battery and cell phone collection program in North America. Since 1994, Call2Recycle says it has diverted more than 50 million pounds of rechargeable batteries from landfills. Still, says Pollack, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Does this sound familiar?

“Often times we hoard them. We keep them in our drawers or they sit in our closets or our attics, instead of bringing them in for recycling, and the fact that they sit there means we know we’re not supposed to throw them away, but we’re not necessarily sure what we are supposed to do with them.”

For some products, like cell phones, it’s important to recycle them as soon as possible. The longer you wait the harder it is for recycling companies to make money off them, because they get outdated. If you want to find a place to recycle your phone and rechargeable batteries, Call2Recycle has a network of 30,000 collection sites nationwide, including 740 sites in Michigan.

Pollock says this year there’s been a sharp increase in rechargeable battery recycling in the American south, a place where recycling has been slow to take off. She says it’s not clear why that’s happening. Michigan is in the middle of the pack, but there’s been a very slight decrease in battery recycling, about 1%. So far this year, Michiganders have recycled just over 71,000 pounds of rechargeable batteries through Call2Recycle.

Tanya Ott, the Environment Report.

Host:The Consumer Electronics Association says the average household has about 24 different types of electronic devices. Most of these TVs, computers and cell phones eventually end up in the garbage.

Special thanks to Suzy Vuljevich for her production help on this story.

Rebecca Williams, the Environment Report.

Taking Back the ‘Take Back’ Law?

  • 19 states have passed ‘take back’ laws that require manufacturers to take back old electronics and pay to recycle them. But manufacturers are challenging these laws. (Photo source: dirkj at Wikimedia Commons)

The City of New York is being sued
by the electronics industry. Samara
Freemark reports it’s over recycling
electronic waste, such as cell phones
and computers:

Transcript

The city of New York is being sued by the electronics industry. Samara Freemark reports it’s over recycling electronic waste such as cell phones and computers:

Electronic waste contains all sorts of hazardous chemicals, but safely recycling it is expensive.

So 19 states have passed ‘take back’ laws that require manufacturers to take back old electronics and pay to recycle them.

Now manufacturers are challenging these laws. Two industry groups have sued New York City. They want the city’s take back law overturned.

Kate Sinding is a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. That group has joined New York in the suit. She says a decision in the case could have consequences beyond electronics take backs.

“There are a lot of deeper questions that are raised by the lawsuit, including issues of corporate responsibility. If somebody’s going to produce something that has toxic components, what is their ongoing responsibility to deal with that, even after it’s sold into the market?”

The court will decide that next year.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

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E-Waste Polluting Overseas

  • Exposed to toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury, workers stay at the scrap yards for the $130-a-month pay. (photo by Ted Land)

At your home, chances are your TV, computer and other electronic gear were made
overseas. That’s because it’s cheaper to make them there. And it’s cheaper to get rid of old
electronics overseas. Someday, your old cell phone or CD player might end up right back
where it started: in China. Ted Land visited a Chinese city where electronic waste, or e-waste, is shipped by the thousands of tons. Pollution from that waste is threatening the
health of people who live there:

Transcript

At your home, chances are your TV, computer and other electronic gear were made
overseas. That’s because it’s cheaper to make them there. And it’s cheaper to get rid of old
electronics overseas. Someday, your old cell phone or CD player might end up right back
where it started: in China. Ted Land visited a Chinese city where electronic waste , or e-
waste, is shipped by the thousands of tons. Pollution from that waste is threatening the
health of people who live there:


The city of Taizhou is in eastern China. It’s an industrial port city. A lot of the people
who travel here are here on business. Ships loaded with new products are often headed
for the United States. But it’s not just what leaves this city that makes business boom…
it’s also what’s coming in:


“I know it’s polluted here but it’s not a big deal. The most important thing is my
children, that’s the reason why I found work here.”


Liu Qinzhen works at this Taizhou scrap plant. It’s the final stop for some of the nearly
4,000 tons of scrap and e-waste that enters the port each day. Liu is one of hundreds of
workers who squat under an outdoor pavilion picking apart old circuit boards and wires.
She works 9 hours a day, 7 days a week, earning about 130 dollars a month.


The work is dangerous. She and the other workers are exposed to harmful chemicals
from e-waste such as lead and mercury. The 23-year-old moved here for this job because
she needed to support her two kids:


“I used to work in a shoe factory but then I had a baby and it’s not convenient to have a
baby there so I moved here even though the pay is the same. I come from the countryside.
You can’t earn money on a farm.”


The plant where she works is considered safer than scrapping these materials in the
countryside where families work in their front yards and in their homes. They melt
circuit boards and burn wires to extract bits of valuable copper and gold.


Environmental organizations have documented evidence that what’s left over after the
valuable metals are retrieved is dumped into local rivers and streams:


(Land:) “I noticed when we arrived they shut down the other door of that other shop?


“They are doing the same kind of e-waste, but they are afraid of being discovered by
others.”


Afraid, says Taizhou resident Chen Yijun because what they’re doing is illegal. Chinese
law forbids the import of e-waste, yet piles of foreign electronics litter the countryside
and pour into scrap plants daily.


Yijun is a teacher at Taizhou #1 High School, where students are concerned about what
the e-waste industry is doing to their environment. They’ve been testing the water in
local streams, looking for signs of harmful chemicals:


On this day they draw several gallons from a stream. The banks are littered with piles of
electrical cable. Chen Zhengyan has been working on the project for years:


“The frogs here are different from frogs in other places because sometimes they have
extra limbs. We are sure the pollution is from e-waste because in this area there is no
other industry.”


Chen and her colleagues say this pollution is harmful to people, too. They tell local
government officials such as Liang Xiaoyong that something has to be done to improve
the situation. But, Liang says there’s only so much the government can do to combat an
illegal industry that so many residents make their living off of. He says cutting off the
imports is difficult because sometimes e-waste is hidden in with other scrap. He doesn’t
deny the waste industry is a big business here:


This industry generates a lot of tax money for us in the form of tariffs. So, if this industry
doesn’t exist, the Taizhou harbor won’t survive.


Jim Puckett is coordinator of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle based group that
confronts toxic trade issues around the world. He says it’s not that the Chinese
government is unwilling to stop imports, it’s simply unable to stop them.


“They’ve banned the import, the problem is they can’t control that flow, it’s just coming at
them container load after container load through various ports and they can’t possibly check every
single one.”


American waste is literally fueling the fires burning electronics that dot the countryside in
China. And many of the original owners of this gear had taken it to be recycled, and
thought they’d done the right thing. But, often it ends up on a ship, headed for scrap
yards overseas.


About seven thousand miles away from Taizhou, practically the other side of the globe,
there’s a warehouse in Springfield, Illinois stacked with old electronic gear.


The Illinois State Department of Central Management Services, or CMS, disposes of old
state property, including old copy machines, computers, and monitors. In 2005, CMS
was contacted by the Basel Action Network with some disturbing information. The
group was finding State of Illinois computers dumped in developing countries around the
world. Curtis Howard is manager of CMS state and federal surplus property:


“It hit me pretty hard, the fact that, not realizing, you know I always look at it, these guys
were here, they come in, they bid on our property, you know I’m maximizing the return on
the state’s investment, I’m doing a good job, I never really thought about the tail end of
the dragon.”


Basel Action Network coordinator Jim Puckett says if the Chinese are unable to stop the
imports, then it’s up to the United States to control what they export:


Other countries have laws forbidding it, laws controlling it, but in the United States, we
don’t even have a law to control this export.


The U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that have not signed and ratified the Basel
Convention, an international treaty that bans hazardous waste exports. That means if
anything is going to be done to stop electronic waste from polluting countries overseas,
it’s going to be up to the States to take action.


It starts with buying electronics from companies that make products that are more easily
recycled, and ends with making sure old electronic gear is getting into the hands of
responsible recyclers who don’t simply ship the e-waste to scrap yards overseas.


For the Environment Report, I’m Ted Land.

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Searching for E-Waste Solutions

  • Many people do not know what to do with old computers and equipment, so they end up in the trash.

If you bought a new computer over the holidays, there are plenty of places to drop off your household’s old computer. But to prevent more of the old monitors, laptops and other items from winding up in landfills, some Midwest states are looking to make sure computer makers get involved in recycling their products. One of the few manufacturers that already helps re-use old computer parts is Texas-based Dell, Incorporated. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach went to a Dell-sponsored recycling center and has this
report:

Transcript

If you bought a new computer over the holidays, there are plenty of
places to drop off your household’s old computer, but to prevent more
of the old monitors, laptops and other items from winding up in
landfills, some Midwest states are looking to make sure computer
makers get involved in recycling their products. One of the few
manufacturers that already helps re-use old computer parts is
Texas-based Dell, Incorporated. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Chuck Quirmbach went to a Dell-sponsored recycling center and has this
report:


About a year ago, Dell helped set up and publicize a computer
recycling plant at a Goodwill Industries facility in Dell’s home city
of Austin.


(Sound of clunking)


Goodwill employees and volunteers sort through the hundreds of
boxes of computers and computer parts that are dropped off – at no
charge to the consumer – at the site. Newer computers are set aside
for repairs, and hard drive memories are erased. Older computers go
to a bench where workers like Paul take apart (or demanufacture)
them.


“I’m taking apart all the useable parts. Motherboard, power sources,
cards, ports, metal goes into bins, plastic goes into bins for
recycling and what not.”


(Sound of ambience switch)


Goodwill sells the reusable parts at its retail store elsewhere in the
building. Used LCD monitors, for example, go for as low as twenty
dollars.


Manager Christine Banks says some of the equipment is under
a 30-day Goodwill warranty. Other parts can be exchanged if the
customer isn’t satisfied. Banks says Goodwill is happy this computer-
recycling program makes a profit.


“Our operation does. However, there are 7 or 8 other Goodwills
throughout the country that do this that barely break even. We’re just
fortunate we have higher tech donations, a pool of employees with
more technology, it’s very tricky.”


Some states charge high disposal costs for unwanted computer parts,
which can contain potentially harmful chemicals. Those high costs can
make it difficult for a recycling program to get off the ground, but
environmental groups say the fast-growing pile of circuit boards,
monitors, and plastic parts can leach poisons like lead, mercury, and
cadmium into the environment.


They say small-scale projects like the one in Austin have to be part of a
broader effort to keep electronic waste out of the nation’s landfills. That
effort could include government mandates forcing manufacturers to
safely dispose of old products.


Robin Schneider is with the Austin office of the National Computer
Takeback Campaign.


“So, to really deal with the environmental problems of millions of
pounds of toxins, we’re gonna need something bigger than this. This is a
piece of it…and gonna need lot of pieces of it.”


Schneider says she’s encouraged that some Midwest states are
looking into manufacturer takeback programs. She acknowledges that
recycling may drive up the cost of new computers, but she also says
manufacturers may start redesigning computers so that it’s more
profitable for the companies to take them back.


For the GLRC, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

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