Hey Mom, Which Bin Does the E-waste Go In? (San Francisco Chronicle)

Alison Rood, The San Francisco Chronicle

My teenage
sons have learned to diligently recycle soda cans, milk cartons and junk mail,
but occasionally one of them will bring me something and ask if it's garbage.

By now they
know that their mom will fish toilet paper rolls from the bathroom trash for
recycling, so irresponsible tossing is not allowed. But the latest questionable
item was the hard plastic casing that held a new electronic gadget, and I
shuddered. Contemplating how to dispose of the electronic item that the piece
was replacing was bad enough without feeling guilty about the unrecyclable
packaging.

E-waste:
that great big bugaboo. When I was a kid the only major electronic item in our
home was a TV set, and it lasted most of my childhood. If it stopped working, a
man in a uniform drove to our house, pulled out a toolbox and fixed it. Now,
consumers are more apt to buy new than repair what is old.

My husband
and I try to limit our electronic purchases to what is necessary, but over the
years our home has become a repository for old computer parts, monitors,
keyboards, VHS tapes and a couple of small TVs. A DVD player just went kaput,
and although we had another, secondhand DVD player to replace it, the broken
player was added to our stack of electronic debris. Like the "player to be named
later," our pile of obsolete electronics is "e-waste to be recycled someday."

The problem
is, we want to find a proper home for our electronic orphans. Our daily waste
stream of recyclables includes paper, plastic, cardboard and glass, not lead,
mercury, cadmium and polyvinyl chloride, which are a few of the hazardous
substances found in personal computers and TV sets. I don't worry about my empty
pickle jar poisoning the earth if it's improperly buried in a U.S.
landfill or sent to a developing country and dumped, but e-waste is a different
story.

It can be
wearisome making sure that everything we do is correct, from eating the right
foods, to raising kind, respectful children, to making eco-friendly decisions.
Still, I felt duty bound to find out whether my local electronic recycler is a
responsible steward, so I contacted our waste disposal service. I was directed
to the electronic waste company with whom it contracts, and I diligently checked
out the e-waste recycler's Web page.

On the
surface, its method of operation seemed fine, but unless I personally track the
recycle stream of every single component in the electronic item I'm recycling
(including the toxic waste), how can I be sure?

P.J.
Johnson, a manager with the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, agreed.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of complex issues
regarding responsible e-waste recycling," he said. "It can be difficult to
ensure that e-waste management is being handled responsibly. Some recyclers
export hazardous waste overseas or send it to domestic prison operations in
order to take advantage of cheap labor."

Sue Chiang,
the pollution prevention program director at the center, predicts that e-waste
disposal problems will only get worse when U.S. television
broadcasters switch to all-digital transmissions in February 2009.

"Anyone
with an old analog TV (and no cable) will no longer be able to pick up TV
stations on it unless they buy a converter box," she said. "This will likely
mean that a lot of people will want to just buy a newer flat-screen TV, and tons
of old CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs will get trashed.

"Now is the
time to encourage TV companies to take responsibility for their products," she
added.

Chiang has
helped make the search for a conscientious recycler a lot easier by compiling a
list, "San Francisco Bay Area Responsible Electronic Recycling."

The
recyclers she names have all taken the "Electronic Recycler's Pledge of True
Stewardship," and according to the Basal Action Network Web page, this pledge
represents "the most rigorous criteria for sustainable and socially just
electronics recycling."

The
information for each recycler on the list includes names, addresses, telephone
numbers, hours of operation, types of electronics accepted and fees, if
any.

"I believe
that the BAN list of companies (e-stewards) that have signed the pledge is the
best resource available for the average consumer to locate a responsible
recycler," Chiang said.

"It is not
100 percent guaranteed that the e-recycler is doing everything perfectly, since
it is not a certification program, but BAN does a fair amount of due diligence
to screen the companies before they are listed as a pledge signer. BAN also
removes companies from the list if there is evidence that they are not complying
with the pledge."

Once my
husband and I deal with our old electronics, I plan to tackle our VHS tapes. I
called a local record store and learned they'll buy tapes that are in good
condition for 30 to 50 cents each. If the tapes aren't worthy of selling, or
perhaps donating, the Center for Environmental Health list includes recyclers
that should take them.

The only
closet I'm not touching contains the record albums that my husband and I began
collecting in the 1960s. Clunky old VHS tapes are one thing; LPs are another.
The "Meet the Beatles" album I bought at the grocery store when I was 13 isn't
going anywhere.

E-waste baskets

— The
Center for Environmental Health clip-and-save recycling information can be found
at www.cehca.org/recycling-resources

— For
general information about CEH: www.cehca.org


Information about the Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship is at the Basal
Action Network site: www.ban.org/pledge1.html

Also:

— A list
of the toxins in PCs can be found in a March 21, 2007, article at www.engadget.com called "A PC
is like an ogre; it's full of toxic layers."

— A list
of hazardous chemicals in TVs can be found in a Dec. 23, 2007, article in the
Baltimore Sun
titled "The Hazards Inside the Tube" at www.baltimoresun.com .

 

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