The tale of what happens to your old, forgotten television sets is sad, shocking, and may even turn you off from the very idea of recycling your gadgets. So before we begin, let’s start out by noting that there are responsible ways to recycle or decommission your old TVs and other electronics waste that you have sitting in your garage or storage closets. We’ll get there. But first – take a look at the recent TakeBack My TV campaign, brought to you by the Basel Action Network.
E-Waste in Landfills:
What we know – according to the EPA, over 87% of our electronics waste in the US is simply trashed – sent directly from street corners and curbs to landfills. Lead, mercury, cadmium, PVC, brominated flame retardants are all present in aging TV sets and other electronics and can pose a serious health hazard if leaked into the environment. One old CRT TV alone can include up to 8 pounds of lead. While in the US, the prevalence of e-waste is commonplace, the European Union takes an entirely different stance. An EU-wide ban makes it illegal to put an old TV out on the curb, since heavy metals inside qualify as hazardous waste.
E-Waste Exported to Developing Countries:
Of the 12.5% of electronics waste that is recycled, an estimated 50% to 80% (400,000 to 800,000 tons of e-waste) is exported to the developing world. Workers young and old in Nigeria, China, and India use hammers, gas burners, and bare hands to take apart e-waste and extract the more valuable materials, exposing themselves, the local environment, and surrounding inhabitants to a toxic mix of hazardous chemicals.
While many governments abroad have banned dumping of e-waste, the desire for second-hand electronics keeps a steady stream of junk coming into these countries at an increasingly alarming rate. Basel Action Network’s Jim Puckett says that in practice, exporters exploit the re-use category to avoid disposal costs, promising to bridge the digital divide. These same exporters often win bids to provide “free” recycling services here in the US. These gadget take-backs are organized by local governments, schools, and even non-profits in events surrounding Earth Day, and the truth behind where these devices wind up is not made transparent to the organizers. Taking advantage of the newfound awareness of consumers to responsibly dispose of their gadgets, these recyclers are committing a crime much worse than greenwashing – they are outsourcing pollution and hazardous toxic waste to the developing world.
E-Waste and Prison Labor:
The more surprising finding of what happens to your old electronics: many are sent to prison-based recycling plants throughout the US, in places like Fort Dix, NJ to Tuscon, AZ. The federal government is the largest customer of prison recycling programs, and the owner of prison recycling plant is a wholly owned subsidiary of Federal Prison Industries, which is part of the US Department of Justice. Prisoners are excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act and are not well protected by OSHA and other government agencies set up to monitor workplace safety. While guards and prisoners alike have protested the conditions at e-waste recycling programs, the practice is likely to continue as more local governments ban hazardous chemicals from entering landfills. More responsible recyclers that pay their workers a living wage and payroll tax cannot compete with the $0.23 to $1.15 wage paid to prisoners under these government-owned recycling plants.
The TakeBack My TV program asks manufacturers to take responsibility for the entire life of the products they manufacture, and Sony USA has already committed to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition’s “Manufacturers Commitment to Responsible E-Waste Recycling.” Sony has committed to these three principles for handling the e-waste they collect for recycling:
• No dumping toxic e-waste on developing countries
• No use of prison labor in electronics recycling
• No disposal of toxic e-waste in landfills or incinerators
While other leading electronics manufacturers such as Dell and HP have established partial recycling programs, Sony is the only company to offer unlimited free take back and recycling for ALL of its products in the US through a growing network of collection locations. More importantly, all older Sony products are grandfathered into this service; collection is not contingent on a new purchase.
© Basel Action Network 2006
What you can do:
If you are interested in participating as a consumer activist, the TakeBack My TV campaign has a political-style email you can send to the CEOs of the major electronics manufacturers: Speak Out.
Write Your Friendly Local or National Politican:
States have already begun to adopt legislation similar to the EU’s stance on hazardous e-Waste. See if your state representatives have submitted similar legislation banning waste from landfills or banning the exportation of hazardous waste to developing countries. The US is the only country who has not yet ratified the Basel Convention – a commitment of rich world nations to deal with their own hazardous waste and forbid exportation to developing countries. Write your favorite presidential candidate for next year’s elections, and let them know that this issue matters to you.
Design for Change:
If you work as an industrial designer, engineer, product developer, or marketer in the consumer electronics industry, consider the entire lifecycle of a product when you are planning your next product launch. Speak to your client or your employer about the opportunities for innovation for greener, more environmentally sound design solutions that are good for people and the planet.
Whether you work in or influence a corporate IT department, or are interested in finding a lower impact machine, there are tools available to find more responsible products and companies.
If you are interested in simply finding a responsible company to take back your aging TVs and other electronics, the Electronics Take Back Coalition has a list of qualified recycling companies for you to work with. Many of these companies will charge a fee for recycling your used electronics – but until all manufacturers absorb the cost of recycling into their business model, the only safe way to dispose of these machines is to pay for their disassembly and effective recycling.
If you are involved in local community work or volunteer your time at a local school or non-profit, consider working with a responsible recycler to organize a smart e-waste take-back initiative.