Obsolete electronics often have a morgue of their own. While cadavers repose in refrigeration with a purpose, old cell phones and chargers lie idle in the back corner of the common dresser-drawer for an eternity.
The U.S. government’s regulation of discarded electronics – or “e-waste” – has produced much confusion, especially when it comes to the disposal of these used electronic devices.
First-year microbiology major Anton Ostashko has several old pieces of electronics that he does not know how to dispose of.
“My family’s old rear-projection TV from the 90s, my two previous cell phones and our two old laptops have long been gathering dust in my room,” Ostashko said.
In a collaboratively written Oct. 30 report in Science journal, Julie Schoenung, UC Davis associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, and several UC Irvine professors estimate each U.S. household has approximately seven articles of e-waste in storage.
Sixty-seven percent of 2,136 U.S. households were unaware of e-waste disposal laws, according to a 2008 survey in the Journal of Environmental Management by many of the same UC Irvine professors.
Schoenung said now is the time to act on this ongoing problem.
“The issue [of improper e-waste management] has been a problem for over 10 years, but the U.S. has been reluctant to take any action” she said in an e-mail interview. “Collection [of e-waste] is often the biggest issue in implementing recycling.”
The Science report also mentions the health hazards e-waste presents. Many discarded electronics, when disassembled to reclaim useful raw materials, leave behind highly noxious substances like lead and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are used in flame-retardants.
Schoenung is also concerned about future disposal of flat-panel displays.
“Mercury will become a problem when flat panel displays start becoming obsolete,” she said.
Although the current nationwide Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) deals with the handling of hazardous waste, Schoenung said it is insufficient because it deals only with waste that is highly concentrated in a certain area.
“[Diffusely concentrated waste] is referred to as ‘universal waste’ and it is exempt from RCRA,” she said.
California took a turn away from federal policy, implementing its own e-waste management laws.
“California no longer accepts that exemption and large organizations must collect their e-waste and have it managed properly,” Schoenung said.
According to a 2008 market analysis by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), 25 percent of consumer electronics adopters recycled electronics they no longer used. When polled as to why they did not recycle and throw away outdated electronics, the remaining 75 percent cited convenience.
The second most common response in the poll showed consumers were simply uninformed about the recycling programs in place.
Schoenung said bringing recycling directly to the consumer is paramount in resolving the problem.
“Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) work for many types of products, without the individual needing to know much about what they are discarding,” Schoenung said.
Another CEA study in 2005 gathered that seven in 10 consumers would invest the time to recycle their electronics if they knew where and how to do it.
Recently, the Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act, a U.S. bill that provides guidelines for the regulation and recycling of e-waste, worked its way through the House and is now being debated in the Senate.
By contrast, the European Union has in place two pieces of e-waste legislation that have proven to be very successful – the Restriction on the Use of Hazardous Substances and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment.
Schoenung said students, as consumers, can push for effective collection methods, including on-campus drop-offs, and information from companies, specifically on what substances their products contain, or why they claim their product to be “green.”
YARA ELMJOUIE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.