Monday, September 17, 2007

Electronics Recycling Can be a Dirty Business, or Not....

Electronic Recycling Parts I and II: Reprinted from the Montague Reporter


Part I


When I mentioned I was doing some research into e-waste, or electronic waste, meaning anything from iPods to computers, my neighbor Patrick groused, “I’ve got a ware-house half-full of computers. I don’t know what to do with them.” Patrick owns several Turn it Up! record and CD stores, providing plenty of opportunity for e-waste. Later that day I mentioned the e-waste issue to William, a self-employed computer repair and software expert. He pointed to a tall shelf stuffed with old computer parts.

Patrick and William aren’t alone. We’ve all got some, haunting us with their lack of utility, taking up space. I’ve got an old monitor in my shed, a laptop no one wants (not even the kids) under the couch, and then there’s the box labeled, “Misc. electronics stuff.”

In a recent report on e-waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the almost two billion electronics sold (this includes things like laptops, desktops, cell phones, keyboards) over the past twenty-four years, roughly 180 million units are in storage somewhere, lurking in basements, attics and sheds around the nation.

William told me a while back he’d carted a bunch of his old computer parts down to his local elementary school, “They were recycling a bunch of their own stuff – I asked their permission, of course – but I have no idea what happened after that.”

What happens after that it the big question. A question all of use who use computers, digital cameras, cell phones and iPods ought to be asking. As many of us already know – for the most part – you can’t give the stuff away, particularly things like computers, even if they’re still in fine working condition. Many years ago, when computers were room-sized modern miracles, my father helped pioneer the Used Computer business, buying and selling the behemoths across the country and around the world. But, over the period of a couple of decades as computer chips shrank, and the million dollar equipment that used to require its own air-conditioned room evolved into desk-top computers that cost a few hundred dollars, he also observed the demise of the used computer business. A decade ago, when visiting Israel, he was shown an empty classroom. “Our computer room,” they hinted. He offered to fill it with completely functional used desktops for free – they declined. They wanted new.

These days new doesn’t last long. In fact my four-year old IBM is at the shop around the corner– and I can only hope if my hard drive has taken its last spin, that Veronica and Cathy who are tending to it, can save the e-mails that were never backed up, the early drafts, the photos and all those iTunes my son downloaded.

“I know how many we see die, and the landfill thing just kills me,” said Veronica, when I mentioned e-waste. As I imagine is the case with most computer ER’s like Veronica’s, the workshop was filled with computer cases, monitors and cables. I asked Veronica about rebuilding, or updating old computers. “We can take an old case,” she said, “but the new motherboards just don’t fit in them.” We were standing over a large box filled with circuit boards bound for the recyclers, each board a different concoction of colorful wires, copper, precious metals (gold, silver, and platinum) and plastic. These boards are the heart and soul of our computers and sought out by recyclers around the world interested in recovering metals, and this is where my own journey into the toxicology and politics of e-waste really begins.

Recently two disturbing articles on e-waste published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology caught my eye. The title of the first article, by Huiru Li and others, is Severe PCDD/F and PBDD/F Pollution in Air around an Electronic Waste Dismantling Area in China and the other by Xinhui Bi and others is Exposure of Electronics Dismantling Workers to Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Organochlorine Pesticides in South China. The titles say it all. Together these articles describe the exceedingly high concentrations of toxic chemicals released from e-waste plastics that contaminate not only the workers who dismantle and “recycle” e-waste.

But what has this got to do with me and my useless electronics?

According to the authors, upwards of one million tons of electronic waste is shipped to China from the United States, Europe and other countries, and as they note, “Unfortunately, appropriate methods and advanced techniques to deal with such a great quantity of EW [e-waste] in China are lacking. Cheap and primordial methods, like manual disassembly, roasting, and combustion, are often used to dismantle the EW to recover valuable metals, plastics, and electronic devices.”

Roasting. We’re talking toxic metals and plastics like polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene which often contain chlorides and flame retardants including polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs. Although the impacts of PBDE exposure on humans is unclear, in animal studies they impair thyroid function (in fact, a recent study associates PBDEs with hyperthyroidism in house cats), additionally these chemicals are widespread in the environment, and like their polychlorinated cousins (for example PCBs and dioxins) are persistent in the environment, accumulating in both humans and in wildlife. But that’s not all folks, when heated the plastics and the chemicals with which they’re impregnated melt and recombine to form even more toxic products including polychlorinated and polybrominated dioxins, which then contaminate not only the worker’s air, but the air of local villages, delivering these hazardous chemicals to both the oldest and youngest residents. In fact, based on concentrations in local air, the authors estimate that residents may be exposed to upwards of fifty times the total daily intake of toxic equivalents established by the World Health Organization (because chemicals like dioxins really represent a large family of similarly shaped chemicals with a broad range of toxicity – toxic equivalents are used to establish a single number that can be used to refer to toxic doses of dioxin and like-chemical mixtures), and, they add, workers are likely exposed to much higher amounts.

My thoughts turned to the monitor in the shed, and the laptop under the couch. In our Massachusetts town, for five dollars a piece I cart the monitor and laptop over to the local transfer station. But surely they don’t end up in one of those communities I’d read about? Or do they?

Part II

“Great question,” says Jan Ameen, the executive director of my county’s solid waste management district. “The company most towns use had been processing everything in the U.S.China. I heard they don’t do that anymore. We are looking into different companies that appear to have a better market.” They got bought out a couple of years ago and I just thought to ask about their markets. A bunch of end product goes overseas. …the company Montague uses was sending things on a box car to

My heart sank. Our little town of Montague tends towards the progressive. We’ve got great recycling, Prius’s zip through town, and biodiesels abound. Solar panels glint from rooftops and good luck to the Nestle Corporation, currently considering sucking spring water from the Montague Plains. After a few more e-mail exchanges with Jan, I began to wonder if it was even possible to ensure that our e-waste did not sicken workers nor contaminate their local environment.

I was on a mission. Jan gave me the names of a few local companies that collect e-waste and after Googling e-waste and recycling, I sent a raft of emails to various companies around the country. “I am interested in learning about e-waste recycling and dismantling,” I wrote, and attached a list of questions I’d hope would get some answers. Perhaps I shouldn’t have included that I was a toxicologist and a writer. I received just one response.

“Almost any electronic waste can be recycled,” wrote Andrew McManus, Environmental Engineer at Metech International, a large precious metal and electronic waste recycler with facilities in Worcester, MA and Gilroy, CA, which serves commercial businesses and equipment manufacturers. In response to the questions I’d sent, he provided a detailed narrative of what happens to the plastics, metals, and batteries once they leave our homes and enter their facility.

“Current historic high prices for base and precious metals, rapid changeover of technology, data security systems, and high labor costs,” explained McManus, “favor shredding domestically.

Current standard shredding process is as follows: Desktop computers usually have one small "button-cell" lithium metal battery inside which functions as the computer memory clock. Typically the case is opened, the main circuit board is pulled out, and the battery is removed. The entire CPU frame is placed on a conveyor and shredded. A magnetic belt removes the steel after shredding, sometimes followed by an Eddy Current separator to remove non-ferrous metals like aluminum and copper materials. The remaining mixed material contains circuit boards, some mixed metals, and plastic.”

This was all very interesting, and positive, until I got to the following:

“This is sent overseas to a smelter for recovery of the copper, precious metals, and other base metals while the remaining plastic/circuit board is consumed as fuel in the process. There are no facilities in the U.S. that can take circuit boards and effectively recover metals.”

“Overseas,” I responded, “as in Asia? Why are there no facilities in the U.S.?” I thought about the box of circuit boards at Veronica’s, and imagined them waiting to be roasted in Guiyu, China. Knowing that the conditions in China and elsewhere was likely a sensitive topic, thanks in part to the Basal Action Network, a nonprofit toxic-trade watchdog group, responsible for the documentary, Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia,” and more recently “The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse to Africa,” I wondered if McManus would answer.

The response was swift, maybe for those reasons above, he was quick to point out they do not ship circuit boards to Asia.

“We send our circuit boards to Germany, Sweden, or Belgium. There are also large smelters in Canada and Japan.”

In response to my question about why no U.S. facilities, McManus wrote, “In my opinion there are none in the U.S. because our government in unwilling to establish conditions favorable to operate. Regulations are no stricter than other places in the world. Our environmental agencies do not co-operate with business, and our legal system makes lawsuits by almost any party a constant risk. The complexity of materials would require an enormous capital investment. The German smelter, Norddeutsche Affinerie, recently announced they plan to build a secondary copper smelter to recover electronic waste in Louisiana.”

His comments about difficulties with recycling in our own country where we’ve got electronic gadgets galore, made me wonder about who ought to be responsible for recycling, aside from the consumer, many of whom would like to do the right thing but who just don’t have the time to investigate what happens to their cast-offs once they’ve deposited them at the town transfer station.

Turns out this is a question that states across the country have been asking in recent years, with California, of course, leading the way. Back in 2003 California enacted “The Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003” requiring retailers to collect e-waste recycling fees from consumers, which then cover the cost of collection and recycling of unwanted electronics. This is just one approach. Another is to hold the producer responsible. According to Dennis Brown Vice President of State Government Relations for the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association, eight states so far have passed electronic recycling legislation with seven of the eight enacting producer responsibility legislation and it looks like Massachusetts may follow suit.

“Massachusetts is all the more unlikely to do what California did if it results in a ten dollar tax – New Hampshire would throw a party for the legislature if they did,” says Brown, adding that, “producer responsibility to develop programs for recycling also spurs development of more green products.”

And some producers are already reclaiming their own materials. Most recently, Sony announced a take-back program for any Sony product, joining computer companies Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple, all of which now have some version of recycling (Dell for example will take back any brand of computer upon purchase of a new Dell.)

This all seems like great news, but none of it answers the “Then What,” question. Most companies refer to their “environmentally responsible practices,” but it would take some digging to learn specifics. What would Massachusetts do if they enacted legislation requiring some sort of recycling?

According to Greg Cooper of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, “The legislation would hopefully build on the existing collection and processing infrastructure that Massachusetts has built since its, first in the nation, ban on the disposal of televisions and computer monitors and ensure that e-waste is managed in an environmentally sound manner."

Thankfully, I don’t need to think about recycling the old IBM just yet – Veronica and Cathy fixed it up just fine - but hopefully when the day comes for the blue screen of death to rear it’s ugly head – I’ll be able to send her off for disassembly and recycling without contaminating workers and their families half-way around the world.

For more information check out EPA's site on e-waste and the Basal Action Network's site. If you want a whole book about it, read High Tech Trash, by Elizabeth Grossman, published by Island Press.

For detailed information on Cell Phone recycling see: Cell Phone Recycling

Please feel free to distribute or reprint with proper attribution: E. Monosson, theneighborhoodtoxicologist.blogspot.com

1 comment:

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