By Patrick Naylis
Photography by Ross Evertson
Semi-trucks dominate the traffic in this part of Denver’s industrialized north side. Inside a dusty100,000 square foot warehouse, a line of around 20 workers disassembles electronic goods. They demolish electronic products ranging from 50’s era bakelite TV consoles to modern day hi-res flat screen monitors. Behind them, hi-los scoot across the concrete floor carrying bins of sorted electronic components to waiting semi-trailers.
This is Metech Recycling, an e-waste recycler that differs from other recyclers in the area. Conscientious consumers brought their electronic refuse to Metech because they know it will be recycled responsibly. They are certain it won’t be discarded in a municipal landfill or dumped on a poor nation in, say, West Africa, causing polluted air, aquifers, and soil.
Metech provides this guarantee as the basis of their business, and with the growth in disposable commodities causing environmental concern, it’s an important guarantee.
Americans buy a lot of new technology. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, we spent $180 billion on electronic gadgets last year. They seem to make our lives easier, save time, and offer more ways to communicate. Consequently, Americans also trash a lot of technology: according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we produced 3.1 million tons of e-waste in 2008.
“The problem most countries face, and not just the U.S., is that people like appliances. People like the comfort,” said Lakhsham Guruswamy, Professor of International Environmental Law at the CU-Boulder School of Law and an expert on e-waste.
Most of U.S. give little or no thought to what happens when we set that old flat screen on the curb for the trash man, or take an outdated computer system to a recycler. “There’s no such thing as saying you can use an appliance” without consequences said Guruswamy.
But the repercussions of using electronics and appliances are many. Handheld devices like smartphones and tablets work with such ease and comfort. Their size gives us little reason to think about what lies beneath. “We have to think about what’s connected with that [device] and what supports it,” said Aric McBay, co-author of “What We Leave Behind,” a critique on how we handle waste. Wealthy countries “get iPhones and the rest of the world gets mines, manufacturing sites, trash, and toxic waste or e-waste dumps.”
Among the chemicals used in manufacturing electronics are cadmium, beryllium, lead, and mercury. These chemicals can be deadly even in the most miniscule amount. There are also hazardous compounds like polychlorinated biphenols, hexavalent chromium, polyvinyl chloride, and brominated flame-retardants. If those toxins leach from landfills into the environment, risks to human health include cancer and central nervous system damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An out-moded cathode ray PC monitor contains about five pounds of lead, whereas a larger cathode ray television has 15 to 18 pounds. When electronics are disposed in municipal dumps, these toxic chemicals can leach into the ground water and eventually aquifers. “There is no way in which waste will go away,” said Guruswamy, “it might take many years for it to be dealt with by the natural environment.”
According to the EPA, of the 3.1 million tons of e-waste produced in the U.S., only 15 percent is recycled. Even when we take our old electronics to an e-waste recycler thinking the material will be dealt with responsibly, often the waste is shipped to developing countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, and China, which then must cope with the problem. How much waste they process is unclear. However, McBay said, “This is a common destination for electronic components that people throw out in North America.”
Despite all the harmful toxins, electronics harbor some salvageable materials. “There are rare and valuable metals used in technology that you can get back out again,” said McBay. These metals include gold, silver, copper, and aluminum.
The methods used to process e-waste vary internationally. In places like India, entire villages are devoted to reclaiming anything valuable. They will use a combination of acid, fire, or hammers to extract valuable materials. “This is very dangerous work where people are directly exposed to toxic smoke from the insulation to toxic materials and hazardous materials like shards of glass,” said McBay.
Children often perform the work, exposed to many harmful toxins and dioxins. In China, where many of the plastics from computers and monitors end up, factories with primitive operations process the e-waste. These factories spew caustic pollutants into the air and ground water, according to Sarah Westervelt, e-waste project coordinator for the Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based toxic trade watchdog organization.
Countries like Nigeria want developed country’s e-waste, not to process for raw materials, but rather they want working equipment like cell phones and computers so they “can get on-line and run businesses, and get connected to the internet,” said Westervelt.
Many times, though, the materials they were getting were junk. The computer associations they bought from sent container-loads where “50-75 percent were complete junk. They couldn’t refurbish them, they couldn’t sell them,” said Westervelt.
Designed for the Dump
The amount of waste continues to grow every year. Part of the problem is manufacturers’ “design for the dump” mentality, said McBay. Products are meant to be used for a short time and thrown away. Manufacturers make a lot more money when consumers upgrade their phones and throw away their older working phones. “They love to see us get a new phone every year or get a new laptop. And what we’re doing is producing a huge amount of hazardous waste that has no real good solution in this country,” said Westervelt.
That doesn’t mean countries aren’t trying to solve the global problem of e-waste. In 1989, 175 countries signed and ratified the Basel Convention, meant to be a trade barrier between wealthy industrialized nations and developing nations. It sought to bar the transport of hazardous waste from rich to poor countries, but the signed draft fell short of its goal until it was revised in a1995 amendment.
“It’s really to say nobody should be producing hazardous waste in the first place and if a country does, it should be self-sufficient in managing itself. Don’t export it anywhere, much less a developing country,” said Westervelt. The amendment places the burden on wealthy countries to deal with their own hazardous waste, including e-waste.
The E.U. has taken the lead initiating the amendment to the Basel Convention. The E.U. has ratified the convention, placed it in their domestic laws, and have an enforcement mechanism, including Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization. Interpol helps developing countries stop the importation of hazardous and e-waste into their borders.
Even though the E.U. isn’t 100 percent effective in ending illegal e-waste shipment to developing countries, “they are way ahead of the U.S. in all these fronts.” said Westervelt.
The U.S. remains one of only a few countries who have not ratified the Basel Convention. Federal barriers barring hazardous waste export do not exist in the U.S. That leaves the states and local municipalities to deal with the e-waste problem.
As of 2011, 24 states have passed laws banning the disposal of e-waste in landfills. Most of these states require manufacturers to take back old electronics to be recycled. Even then, there’s no guarantee they will be dealt with responsibly. The lack of any enforcement means the manufacturer may export the returned electronics to developing countries to be recycled.
Colorado does not have a landfill or incinerator ban on electronic devices. In states like Colorado without residential e-waste recycling laws, consumers who wish to safely dispose of old electronics can take them to a local e-waste recycler. Again, consumers have no assurances that the recycler will deal with them properly.
Since 2003, BAN has been crafting an independent certification program to define responsible recycling.
“We now have this very rigorous program that we’ve built that has a tremendous amount of integrity in it,” said Westervelt, referring to the E-Steward program. Essentially the E-Steward program implements the amendment to the Basel Convention on a voluntary basis. BAN recently updated its E-Steward program, making the standards much more effective. An independent third-party certification body now accredits e-waste recyclers as E-Stewards. Certified E-Stewards are prevented from shipping e-waste to developing countries. They must responsibly deal with heavy metals like lead and mercury even though it may mean a loss to the recycler. “It’s really the most rigorous system that’s available,” said Westervelt.
Metech is in the final stages of approval for BAN’s E-Steward program. “We were a pledged signer from the founding of the E-Steward program,” said John Miller, vice president of Metech Recycling. When BAN transitioned to a third party certification program Metech needed to re-certify.
Metech accepts almost everything that has a cord or is battery operated. For a fee, Metech will responsibly process a customer’s e-waste. “95 percent of everything that comes into our facility is separated and reintroduced into manufacture of new goods,” said Miller. Once in the facility, old electronics like hard drives and televisions are quickly broken down. Workers can disassemble a computer in 60 seconds. The components are categorized and sorted to be sent to various vendors for further processing.
The city and county of Denver does not offer curbside recycling of e-waste. However, Denver Recycles does offer two programs for Denver residents. The first is a coupon people can apply for online. The second is a one day collection event in partnership with Metech and Comcast. The event will be held Saturday, February 12 at Metech’s facility. There is a $5 fee per vehicle and it is an appointment-only event said Charlotte Pitt, recycling program manager for Denver Recycles/Solid Waste Management. For more information or to schedule an appointment, Denver residents can go to www.denver.gov/ecorally. •