Posted by: Francis Koster Published: January 20, 2012

Avoiding Electronic Poison

Avoiding Electronic Poison

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

Ever try to lift an old style television or computer monitor? They are surprisingly heavy - because they have between four and eight pounds of lead inside.[1]

Lead is so damaging to the human brain that it was removed from gasoline years ago and extensive programs to remove it from older buildings were started. In the United States more than two-thirds of all households have three or more TV's [2] containing lead and other chemical which at some point have to be disposed of. Old TV's are a real threat to human brains, and not just from watching them. 

And the danger is not just from TV's.

The average life span of a cell phone in the U.S. is around a year and a half. This means that every 18 months or so a fistful of dangerous chemicals like lead, mercury, nickel and/or cadmium are thrown away.[3]  Americans toss an astonishing 100 million cell phones each year.[4] And fewer than one in 10 are currently recycled.[5]

Old computers are loaded with toxic substances as well, such as lead, chromium, beryllium and cadmium[6] - all of which have been shown to be harmful to human health. Due to the rapid advances in computer technology, an unbelievable 130,000 computers are removed from service in the U.S. each day and replaced with newer models, with little concern for the downstream impact of the discards.[7]

All together, our nation tossed more than two million tons of electronic equipment (called E-Waste) in 2009[8], and the amount is rising rapidly. Electronic waste, such as cell phones, broken computers, and TV's make up around 70 percent of all of the worst kinds of toxins found in landfills.[9]

There are three ways to get rid of old electronics. First, someone can re-use them. If a device works, donate it to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or similar organizations. (Before sending a computer off to an unknown destination, you should remove all data.) Second, you can put it in the dump (this is now illegal in 25 of the 50 states due to the hazards).[10] Third, and much better than dumping it, you can recycle it.

One result of this is that we no longer have to mine new toxics from the ground. One metric ton of old computer circuit boards can contain as much gold as 800 tons [11] of ore mined from the earth - and reclaiming it is a lot cheaper, and healthier, than mining it. The same is true of the other hard to find minerals.

Disposal of E-Waste is a problem with an international moral dimension. Our national practice has been to ship this E-Waste to very poor countries, whose citizens literally poisoned themselves trying to harvest the valuable toxic elements using unsophisticated methods such as open air boiling inside housing compounds.[12] Instead of damaging our children, we contributed to damaging theirs. 

Beginning in June of 2010, North Carolina landfills are not allowed to accept E-Waste because they are so toxic. This leave the citizen somewhat trapped. They have old electronics, but it is very inconvenient to dispose of them . And if they just toss them on the curb or leave them in the woods someplace, they are creating a public health risk for the neighborhood, both now and in the future. 

There are two organizations, one governmental (E-Stewards) and one industry funded (R2 Solutions), which have established safe handling standards for e-waste. Their presence solves the big picture problem, because we can now get trained and professional technicians to take this stuff in and remove the toxins. Because these standards now exist, many new private sector business are being created to capture the dangerous compounds and recycle them, creating jobs.

The little picture problem still remains. What we need are programs to gather E-Waste, and deliver it to a certified and licensed reclamation/recycling center. And this is a local issue, in our control.

There are some good role models out there.

The city of Cary, North Carolina was the first community in North Carolina to offer curbside pick up, beginning in 2000. The program has grown - during FY 2011, 29 tons of E-Waste was collected at no additional cost to the town![13]

The City of Concord, North Carolina has started "valet curbside pickup" of E-Waste - a citizen simply calls two days ahead, and the potential danger is picked up curbside for no charge [14]

Some manufacturers have programs. Apple Computer operates a national recycling program. Customers who buy new computers can ship their old one to a certified recycling center for free. Apple will also accept computers from non-customers if the citizen pays shipping.

Retailer Best Buy also accepts many e-waste items for recycling in bins in front of their stores.[15]

So, here we have a problem with known solutions which combine job development and protecting the public health. You can help by donating your unused electronics to an organization which helps others, and create a more desirable future by copying successful recycling programs already in place. Are you in?
















[13] Personal phone call, Mr. Bob Holden, Solid Waste Division Manager, Town of Cary, 919-469-4388 January 12, 2012



Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.


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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

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