Wednesday, January 30, 2008

High-tech trashed again

High tech trash is a problem that just won’t go away, and a problem which all of us help (if you're reading this you're included) generate. Whether it’s moving on to a more powerful and streamlined computer or buying the latest and greatest cell phone (and even if you don’t keep up with colorful cell phone trends, most only last a couple of years,) we all generate high tech trash or e-waste.

Though I wrote about this earlier (e-waste impacts in China) the January, 2008 National Geographic has an excellent article about the impact of High Tech Trash, by Chris Carroll, this time focusing on the impacts in Africa.

Here are a few sobering numbers from the article based on 2005 data:

  • Of the roughly 760 tons of discarded TV sets only 13.4% are recycled. Just think of what will happen here in the U.S. when digital TV rules. Though a converter will get those of us with decades old sets tuned in, my guess is the changeover will be at the very least a good excuse for many to make the switch to a newer, slimmer tube (so to speak.)
  • The proportion of discarded computer monitors fared better with 24.5% of the almost 390 tons that were discarded.
  • The “frit” that connects the glass panel to the CRT funnel is 70% lead
  • Pre-1990’s glass panels are 2.5% lead

As usual, at least on the environmental front, the European Union is steps ahead, with mandatory take-back programs and restrictions on the amounts of certain toxic substances incorporated into new electronics.

From the EU’s Removal of Hazardous Substances site: “The RoHS Directive stands for "the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment". This Directive bans the placing on the EU market of new electrical and electronic equipment containing more than agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.”

In the EU manufacturers are required to literally take-back electronic goods when consumers are done with them (and with a long history of planned obsolescence – that can be quite frequently with some goods) and manufacturers must ensure that electronics are either responsibly recycled or disposed. The U.S. requires no such thing.

From High Tech Trash:“In the United States, electronic waste has been less of a legislative priority. One of only three countries to sign but not ratify the Basel Convention (the other two are Haiti and Afghanistan), it does not require green design or take-back programs of manufacturers, though a few states have stepped in with their own laws. The U.S. approach, says Matthew Hale, EPA solid waste program director, is instead to encourage responsible recycling by working with industry—for instance, with a ratings system that rewards environmentally sound products with a seal of approval. "We're definitely trying to channel market forces, and look for cooperative approaches and consensus standards," Hale says.

The result of the federal hands-off policy is that the greater part of e-waste sent to domestic recyclers is shunted overseas."

Now, if I could just get my kid, who's been lobbying for a new flat screened TV to read this!

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