Did you know that every time you throw away a computer, it is reincarnated? Seriously, this is true. Instead of coming back to life as, say, a Park City dog which is the fondest wish of many, your adorably useful but dated Apple computer gets a second chance at life in the landfill. Only this time it is reincarnated in the form of a hazardous chemical soup of carcinogens and neurotoxins. A villainous new life even the most frustrating of computers doesn’t deserve.
It’s not just computers that have this amazing ability of reinvention once they hit the landfill – it’s all electronic waste, which is pretty much anything with a plug or a battery. Electronic waste doesn’t have a chance to redeem itself and come back as a higher life form, such as a chairlift or a gondola, it always comes back as the same chemical soup no matter how many good deeds it performed in its lifetime. This soup leaches into the groundwater and is released into our air when trash is incinerated. The recipe for this soup? Frightening. It contains lead, mercury, brominated flame retardants, PCB’s, arsenic, PVC plastic and cadmium. These toxins have been linked with kidney disease, reproductive problems, central nervous system damage, lung cancer, and prostate cancer to name a few. That is certainly bad news for our health, but it is particularly disturbing for our children whose little bodies and brains are still developing.
The statistics about electronic waste disposal are astounding. Every day, people in the United States throw away 112,000 computers according to the EPA. That’s almost forty one million computers a year sitting in our landfills and oozing all kinds of chemicals into the water and releasing those chemicals into the air. And that’s just computers. In addition, Americans dispose of 100 million cell phones and 20 million televisions annually. In 2010, 2.4 million tons of e-waste were tossed into the landfill and 20-50 million tons were trashed worldwide. To give you a visual, that’s the same as throwing away 45,000 to 125,000 fully loaded commercial airplanes a year. To date, the EPA reports that only 27% of all e-waste is recycled.
Here’s what you can do to help combat this growing problem:
First, support legislation in your state that would ban e-waste from landfills. Seventeen states ban e-waste from landfills, if yours doesn’t, consider introducing or supporting legislation that would. In those seventeen states where e-waste is banned from landfills, electronics manufacturers are responsible for the cost of recycling and properly disposing of the items they have created. This makes sense – you produce a hazardous item – you pay for the cost of responsibly disposing of that item. These types of programs known as Extended Producer Responsibility also encourage producers/manufacturers to phase out or recycle toxic components of electronics and discourage illegal dumping. In all thirty five states have e-waste recycling requirements or are considering them. In 2007 Mike Thompson introduced the National Computer Recycling Act but it appears that it went nowhere.
Second, minimize consumption of electronics and be mindful that a cheap purchase now could have long term disposal ramifications. Try to work with what you have by de-bugging your computer, getting good antivirus software, running only the programs you need, and generally taking good care of it. Ditto for cell phones. If you know you drop your phone all the time, get a really strong case for it and for crying out loud, stop taking it into the bathroom! A 2007 study in England found that 850,000 cell phones were dropped in the toilet annually.
Third, try to donate your newer electronics to a thrift store or give them to a friend. If you’re going to donate them, get rid of them quickly so they don’t rot in the basement and become useless. Call the thrift shops first, because even the thrift stores don’t want T-Rex, the Mesozoic Era television set. Barring donation, bring any electronics – that’s anything with a cord or a battery – to your local recycling center where they should be recycled properly. 97% of a computer can be recycled which is remarkable.
Fourth, encourage friends and family to recycle their electronics. We’re lucky enough to be enlightened about these things but most Americans don’t know where or why they should recycle e-waste. Make it your business to help.