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WALL-E & E-Waste

July 15, 2014
Generation of electronic waste, or e-waste, is especially concerning given the rapid advancing of technology. Consumers keen on buying the latest products are quick to discard less up-to-date yet oftentimes still-functioning electronics, which can contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium.

Author: Berenice Leung, C’17, W’17

In Disney Pixar’s 2008 animated movie WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class), a robot roams an exhausted, over-polluted Earth no longer habitable by humans and organisms. This futuristic scenario may be merely science fiction, but it nevertheless highlights the dire consequences of unsustainable living and the reality of consumer waste.

Generation of electronic waste, or e-waste, is especially concerning given the rapid advancing of technology. Consumers keen on buying the latest products are quick to discard less up-to-date yet oftentimes still-functioning electronics, which can contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium.  Proper e-waste management is essential in order to prevent substances (e.g. high concentrations of lead in televisions containing cathode ray tubes) from posing potential harm to human health and the environment.

Across the United States, public policies on recycling e-waste vary by state. California, home to technology power-region Silicon Valley, reported last July that the state recycled approximately 212 million pounds of covered electronic waste through its e-waste recycling program in the year 2012 alone. The covered electronic devices under this program are “cathode ray tube devices, televisions and computer monitors containing cathode ray tubes (CRTs), televisions and computer monitors containing liquid crystal displays (LCDs), laptop computers [with] LCD screens, plasma televisions, [and] personal portable DVD players [with] LCD screens” (Dept. of Resources Recycling and Recovery, 2013). Many other types of electronic devices are not covered by the state’s Covered Electronic Waste Recycling Program, although electronics recyclers in California do accept and recycle other e-waste.

Oregon’s Electronics Recycling Law was amended in 2011, four years after its being adopted, to require that “electronics manufacturers [provide] free, convenient, statewide recycling…for printers and computer peripherals [i.e. keyboards, mice, associated cords] beginning 2015”; this future change will recycle more devices than under the law originally addressing only computers, monitors, and televisions (State of Oregon Dept. of Environ. Quality, 2011, p. 1). In Minnesota, the cost of recycling applicable electronic devices is the producer’s responsibility. Manufacturers of “household televisions, computer monitors, and laptops” (collectively known as video display devices) are mandated “to collect and recycle 80 percent by weight of their products sold [in state]”; in addition, both metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties in Minnesota vary in their approaches towards covering the costs of household e-waste collection (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 2011). State and local governments in the United States, in short, have taken a variety of paths towards e-waste management.


Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of International and Tribal Affairs/Office of Regional and Bilateral Affairs

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is engaged in a number of domestic and international activities related to used electronics. For example, EPA co-chaired the Interagency Taskforce that developed the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship alongside the White House Council on Environmental Quality and General Services Administration (Interagency Taskforce for Electronics Stewardship, 2011). One activity through which EPA engages with international partners on e-waste is the International E-Waste Management Network (IEMN), a joint effort by U.S. EPA and Environmental Protection Administration Taiwan (EPAT). The IEMN enables year-round exchange of information and best practices among participating environmental officials (“International E-Waste Management Network,” 2014). One upcoming IEMN event is the fourth annual IEMN meeting, which will be held this July in Hanoi, Vietnam and attended by representatives from: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Costa Rica, Egypt, El Salvador, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Taiwan, Thailand, United States, and Vietnam. Planned throughout the four-day IEMN meeting are in-depth discussions, trainings, and expert presentations on environmentally sound management of e-waste. The IEMN participants, who are focused on a number of e-waste issues, including collection, regulatory standards, and worker safety, will share the latest updates on e-waste management in their countries and locations in order to directly exchange challenges and best practices.

Around the world, the need for activities like the IEMN is driven by individual and societal demand for electronics. Thus the question perhaps just as pressing as how to best manage e-waste is: How to reduce the high amounts of e-waste initially generated?

The constant introduction and subsequent adoption of new technology is entrenched in the modern economy and culture, but increased public awareness of e-waste generation can lead to more environmentally conscious consumer behavior. For instance, one lesser-known issue related to e-waste is the possible mismanagement of used and nearly defunct electronics abroad. If exported to countries lacking the capacity to safely manage e-waste, these electronics can pose potential threats to human health and the environment (“Cleaning up Electronic Waste,” 2014). Such a possibility can result in problems involving not only human and environmental welfare but also environmental justice.

EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice defines the term as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (“Environmental Justice,” 2014). Consumers are unlikely to think of the potential environmental justice implications related to mismanagement of e-waste when replacing a modern computer with an even newer model. Regardless, knowledge of this possibility can positively influence consumers and their decisions. Many alternatives to the cyclical purchasing of new technology and throwing away of existing technology exist, ranging from updating computer software to repairing broken components, or simply doing without fancy, unnecessary gadgets.

My awareness of such issues increased during my summer internship in EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs/Office of Regional and Bilateral Affairs, and I have developed a deep appreciation for governmental efforts to protect workers and local communities from potential harm related to toxins present in electronics. More knowledgeable of the implications of e-waste, I am less likely to consider the purchase of new electronics until my current laptop and cell phone reach their true end-of-life.

Moreover, I have had the opportunity to engage in the preparations leading up to the next IEMN meeting and its productive exchange. The IEMN participants’ continual effort towards improved environmentally sound management of e-waste is a mentality to be shared among individuals, households, and organizations alike. I hope that our planet—our home—never resembles the extreme case presented inWALL-E and that we take responsibility for e-waste generation and environmental impacts overall. Through our actions, inaction, and decisions, we can safeguard the sustained welfare of Earth’s inhabitants and natural resources.

 

References

  1. Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). (2013, July). Update on California’s covered electronic waste recycling program implementation of the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 (SB 20, Sher). Sacramento, CA: CalRecycle.
  2. Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship. (2011, July). National strategy for electronics stewardship. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/taskforce/docs/strategy.pdf
  3. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). (2011, December). 2011 Evaluation Report on the Minnesota Electronics Recycling Act. Saint Paul, MN: Amanda Cotton, MPCA.
  4. State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. (2012, March). Oregon E-Cycles Biennial Report. Portland, OR: Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Cleaning up electronic waste. Retrieved from http://www2.epa.gov/international-cooperation/cleaning-electronic-waste-e-waste
  6. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Environmental justice. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/
  7. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). International e-waste management network (IEMN). Retrieved from http://www2.epa.gov/international-cooperation/international-e-waste-management-network-iemn

 

 

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