Recycling the digital
Federal legislators hear all about e-waste challenge.
Wed, May 20, 2009 at 04:15 PM
Perhaps our favorite quote of the week: “It’s important to bear in mind that a computer is not a soda can, and a TV is not newspaper."
Now that you’ve had a moment to wrap your head around that hard-to-grasp concept, we’ll give you the context. The quote is from Bart Gordon (D-TN), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, who was talking about e-waste, or discarded electronics. These include roughly 100 million TVs, computers and monitors that become obsolete and are thrown away every year. As Gordon explained at the hearing “E-Waste: Can the Nation Handle Modern Refuse in the Digital Age?” recycling these items isn’t easy.
These are products that contain complex parts and are made up of dozens of materials, some of which like lead and mercury, are toxic. Separating these materials takes time and energy, potentially exposing the environment and workers to hazardous substances, and in the case of something like leaded glass from a computer monitor or TV, leaves us with material that there isn’t much demand for," stated Gordon.
Figuring out just what the heck to do with e-waste is a growing, global problem that some companies and states have been trying to address in the US, but there’s no national plan. To that end, representatives of Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Goodwill, and others testified at the hearing, urging Congress to assist in the development of a recycle-and-reuse infrastructure for unwanted electronic products. Sony and HP have both taken steps to help manage e-waste. Goodwill, meanwhile, has been increasingly burdened with the stuff; in 2004 alone, 23 million pounds of e-waste — the equivalent of roughly 821,000 computers — were donated to the nonprofit’s agencies across the country.
Now the federal government is joining the national and international “conversation taking place right now about how to make sure more e-waste is captured by recyclers,” says Gordon, adding that “In addition to increasing the amount of e-waste that is recycled, we should also look at designing products in smarter ways.”
We’ve got our fingers crossed that useful legislation will be proposed and signed into law soon. After all, as Gordon puts it, "E-waste is hardly trash; while some materials in electronic waste are potentially hazardous, others are quite valuable. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to put gold in a dump."
Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.