Here at The Sustainable Lawyer (TSL) we are always looking for ways to inform our readers about new ways to reduce their environmental impact. In our interviews and conversations with the top green minds of the day, we noticed a lot of emphasis on e-waste recycling. While we were able to understand the basics — recycling electronic products like computers and cell phones — TSL wanted to delve a little deeper into the process and purpose of recycling e-waste. Thanks to some connections, TSL was able to call Senior Environmental Engineer Richard A. Marx and Senior Environmental Scientist Elaine B. Enfonde, both of Nixon Peabody’s Rochester, NY office, to find out more.
One of the first things TSL learned is that e-waste isn’t just recycled, it’s reused. Computers, laptops, telephones, cell phones, TV’s, inkjet printers and other gadgets can often be refurbished to working condition. In many cases, these refurbished items will be given to not for profit organizations or local schools. Just a few examples include providing working cell phones to a battered women’s shelter for emergency use or donating computers to underfunded schools or after school centers. Firms and offices should keep their ears to the ground to hear more about local programs and initiatives that will take in electronics you no longer need and put them to good use.
When products are unfit to be reused, they are disassembled into parts to be recycled. Your everyday appliances are made from materials including plastic and precious metals such as gold and silver, tantalum, mercury, lead and more. Reusing these products rather than making more plastic or mining more metals can significantly impact the environment. Don’t believe me? Fine, let’s see what the EPA has to say:
“By recycling 100 million cell phones, approximately 7,500 pounds of gold could be recovered – allowing that amount of gold to go into new products.Recovering the gold from cell phones, rather than mining it from the earth, would prevent 12,000,000,000 pounds of loose soil, sand, and rock from having to be moved, mined, and processed.”
Computer and cell phone parts are harmful to the environment if not properly recycled. In addition to the aforementioned lead and mercury, e-products also include cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. It gets worse. When heated (the way much of the e-waste is treated, especially overseas) these substances create additional toxins such as halogenated dioxins and furans which e-Stewards.com, a website dedicated to figuring out how to prevent the toxic materials in electronics from continuing to cause long term harm to human health and the environment, calls “some of the most toxic substances known to humankind… that can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and many other health problems.” Essentially, this isn’t something that should be allowed to sit around in landfills or sent to other countries (like 70—80% of e-waste currently is). If not properly managed, materials in these products can be released into our environment, potentially contaminating our air, water and soil. If you do not use a reputable recycler, the potential exists for these materials to be improperly decommissioned and potentially cause serious health risks to both workers and their communities.
So why isn’t everyone doing this? We’re not sure, but only 11-14% of e-waste is sent to recyclers. It is the responsibility of firms and offices to find companies that are operating to the highest standards of e-waste recycling. Fortunately, it’s not impossible. EPA has established a voluntary program known as Responsible Recycling (R2). Additionally, E-Stewards.com, who bill themselves as “the globally responsible way to recycle your electronics,” is one resource for identifying reputable e-waste recyclers. They have a location based map which provides certified recyclers that “conform to the e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Waste” and those that have “contracted with e-Stewards Certifying Bodies and are in the process of becoming certified to the e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Waste.”
As Elaine says, “it’s up to the individual to make the right decision when selecting a recycler to handle their e-waste properly.”
The take home message, Rick says, is that “it is up to each of us to conduct appropriate due diligence regarding where and how our e-waste is discarded and to consider not only the potential environmental and health implications, but also the social impacts. Bottom line, it’s worth it.”