As electronics enthusiasts, it’s easy for us to get excited about new iPods,
faster processors, sleek iBooks, and flat-screen monitors. But most of us have
given little thought to what becomes of the equipment we replace.
An estimated 130 million computers will be manufactured and sold this year,
as well as untold numbers of cell phones, televisions, and other electronic
devices. The outdated electronics we replace, such as computers, televisions,
printers and related peripherals, become electronic waste (e-waste). It’s estimated
that in 2005, one computer will become obsolete for every new computer put
on the market. Cell phones have the shortest lifespan among consumer electronics:
What’s Inside—E-waste is both an environmental problem and a health hazard.
Many people don’t realize that electronics contain hazardous toxins such as
lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants,
all shown to have adverse health effects in humans and wildlife. Particularly
hazardous is older equipment which had large amounts of banned substances used
in their production, such as polybrominated biphenyl (PBBs) and diphenyl ethers
(PBDEs). These chemicals degrade slowly into the environment and build up in
living organisms, much as the more well-known PCBs do. Accumulations of PBBs
and PBDEs are known to affect behavior as well as thyroid hormone production
as levels increase. While the adverse health effects of exposure to lead and
mercury are well documented, most people are less aware that hexavalent chromium
(Cr VI) is more soluble in water than its natural cousin, chromium (Cr III).
Cr VI targets the respiratory system and in 1975 was declared an occupational
carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Want specifics? Different devices and components include a wide variety of
- Monitors and televisions contain cathode ray tubes (CRTs),
which use lead to shield users from radiation. CRTs also contain barium.
circuit boards can contain chromium, lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium,
nickel, and zinc. Lead solder is used to hold components to circuit boards,
and brominated flame retardants are used in circuit boards, cables, and
- Batteries contained in printed circuit boards have numerous hazardous
metals including mercury, nickel, cadmium and lead.
- Laptop computers have
a small fluorescent lamp containing mercury in the screen, in addition
to the materials in monitors and CPUs.
- Peripherals such as printers utilize
circuit boards, batteries, and toner cartridges. Copiers have selenium
or chromium drums.
electronics are not properly disposed of or recycled, they end up in our
landfills, where the toxins they contain can make their
way into the ground water and into the air we breathe. Some discarded electronics
are shipped to developing countries to be harvested for any usable components
by children and other workers paid pennies a day. This work is often done
without gloves, masks, or goggles, resulting in exposure to the harmful
glass, and other sharp objects.
All this happens in part because no national regulations govern the handling
or disposal of e-waste in the United States. California and Maine have
passed their own e-waste laws, which place responsibility on the consumer.
have passed legislation classifying electronics as hazardous waste. This
patchwork of different laws from coast to coast makes it difficult and
consumers to understand what to do, and for retailers and manufacturers
to adhere to the laws.
Make a Difference—So what can we do about it?
As consumers, we need take personal responsibility for recycling our electronics
reseller should offer options to customers and provide information about
hazards of improper recycling. Manufacturers are also responsible: Apple,
and the rest of the gang need to step up and offer incentives to make
sure their temporarily cool items are recycled when they are no longer
Apple has done some work here with the iPod recycling program and other
programs, although the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has called on
the company to go further.
Most solid waste districts can provide you with more information on resources
in your area. You may want to ask a few questions when you go to drop
off your electronics to be sure they’re being disposed of properly. Some
- Do you provide a data scrubbing service to remove information
from the machines?
- What company handles the electronics after they leave
- Are the electronics repaired and resold or dismantled for working
parts? If so, what protections do the workers have against the toxic
- Where are the electronics sent? What is the final destination
of the electronics?
- Are non-working electronics sent to developing
If you’re not sure where to go to recycle your dead electronics,
the Electronics Recycling Initiative and the Electronics
have a list
of links to pertinent recycling information for electronics.
You can also find
additional background information about the electronics
waste problem on the Small Dog Electronics Web site.
Small Dog Electronics supports shared responsibility and shared cost among
consumers, manufacturers, and retailers. In other words, we’re not
just leaving it to our customers to pay for recycling. Currently, we offer
when you purchase a replacement hard drive or iPod battery. We are
also a local drop-off point for all electronics recycling. Recycling is available
cents per pound, which covers the costs that we are charged by the
We’re also working with government leaders and industry organizations
to develop a model for handling end-of-life electronics where financial
are shared. This is proving to be a slow process, especially since
our senator will be retiring this year. So far, no laws have been
passed that have come
directly from our efforts, but we will continue to keep this issue
in Vermont politics. We can all put pressure on our state and local
governments to cooperate by writing to our elected representatives.
Our biggest gains
to date have been working with our local recyclers and solid waste
get them to assist in telling the story of e-waste.
the technology and recycling industry, and our federal, state, and local
governments should work together to make sure
that our e-waste
does not go to landfills or incinerators or to developing countries,
but that our
country has a system for responsibly handling and disposing of
Even if Small Dog Electronics can’t be the biggest contributor
to this movement, maybe we can help by being the smallest and
doing the share of
the work that is ours to do, and spreading the word to other
people. This isn’t hard. It’s like taking a pooper scooper
with you when
a walk with
your dog. If each person cleans up his or her own mess, the
whole mess starts to get cleaned up.