City Life

E-Waste: The Afterlife of Old Electronics

Apple's latest must-have gadget. Motorola's newer, sleeker cell phone. A giant flat-screen TV. It's hard to resist the allure of an electronics upgrade. One problem with technophilia: what to do with old electronics. Tossing them in the landfill wastes valuable materials that could have been reused, and exposure to the hazardous metals and chemicals in electronics could be harmful—even fatal. Only nine states have passed legislation concerning the recycling of discarded electronics, or "e-waste." It's a growing problem that only appears to be getting worse. "Our landfills have limited capacity," says state Senator Mark Miller (D-Monona), a proponent of e-waste legislation. "There's no reason to put toxic or valuable material in the landfill when it could be reused." Wisconsinites own 3.8 million computers, 7.5 million TVs and 3.5 million cell phones, according to a 2006 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources survey. The numbers continue to jump when the electronics owned by businesses and institutions are factored in. Meanwhile, 15,000-25,000 computers are discarded annually in Dane County alone, according to an estimate by the Dane County Department of Public Works, Highway and Transportation. Throwing electronics into the landfill can waste valuable materials like gold and silver that could have been reused to make new electronics. In addition, when not recycled properly, computers, TVs and other electronics can leak hazardous waste into the ground like lead, mercury, cadmium and chemical flame retardants, according to the Wisconsin DNR. Workers improperly handling discarded electronics are at risk of potentially serious health problems including cancer. "This risk is heightened due to the increasing number of electronics in our society and the short lifespans of many electronics due to changes in technology and consumer preferences," the Wisconsin DNR website explains. The national switch in February 2009 to exclusively digital TV is expected to cause a spike in the volume of discarded TVs, making it all the more urgent to establish a system for recycling, not trashing, electronics. In January Miller introduced a bill regulating e-waste; it passed 30-3 in the state Senate but failed to be taken up for a vote in the state Assembly. Miller plans to introduce a new e-waste bill in January 2009. The proposed bill charged product manufacturers with collecting and recycling their electronics, what is called the producer responsibility model. It is the most popular model for states that have passed e-waste legislation. Only California has adopted the advanced recycling fee model, in which consumers pay a cost at the time of their electronics purchase that goes to fund the recycling of that electronic at its end-of-life stage. Miller said the European Union and Japan have both followed the producer responsibility model—for good reason. "To me, that model made the most sense," Miller said. "If you put this material into the stream of commerce, you should take responsibility for its end-of-life reuse or recycling." The bill forbade households from disposing of computers, televisions and cell phones in landfills, which businesses and institutions are already prohibited from doing. Instead, consumers could recycle their electronics at no charge at various locations around the state. Currently consumers have few options locally to recycle their e-waste, with fees running $10 and up, depending on volume and weight. The value of materials recovered during recycling almost equals the cost of recycling, Miller says, making it less of a burden on manufacturers to recycle. Some manufacturers have already adapted the European Union's requirements for e-waste disposal, he says, leading to better, safer electronics. "They're making the equipment easier to disassemble; they're being innovative with the design of the electronics to make them more environmentally-friendly." More and more manufacturers realize they have to do their part to be green companies, Miller says; if a bill were passed, it would ensure that every manufacturer participated. In addition, Wisconsinites would be happy they could easily dispose of old electronics in an environmentally friendly way. "A lot of people have this stuff sitting in their basement," Miller says. "People are waiting for an opportunity to recycle electronics responsibly." Where to Recycle Electronics Locally As of January 2008, Madison residents can drop off their electronics to two sites for recycling: 4602 Sycamore Ave. (East) or 1501 W. Badger Rd. (West). Most computers and televisions carry a recycling fee of $10 while other electronics including cell phones can be recycled for free. The City of Madison no longer hosts bi-annual e-waste recycling events, according to George Dreckmann, City of Madison recycling coordinator. Wisconsinites outside of the City of Madison can bring their electronics to recycling centers to be recycled for a fee. To find an electronics recycler near you, check out the Electronic Industries Alliance's "E-cycling Page"( The website includes a list of questions to ask the recycler to ensure the proper handling of your electronics. Among concerns about unregulated e-waste disposal that you should keep in mind: whether an e-waste recycler sends material overseas or uses prison labor, and whether the whole recycling process meets the standards of workplaces working with hazardous materials.

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