On Sunday night, I saw a computer monitor that had been left near the curb next to the trash cans four houses down from mine. My first thought was that some people are not really aware of the significant damage they cause the environment by tossing electronics along with their trash. I really hoped somebody would pick up this cast-off soon. Unfortunately, on Monday morning, my husband called me to say that he had seen municipal workers literally throwing a computer monitor into a public works pick up truck. The monitor broke into pieces as it landed in the truck’s bed. He was extremely worried about the harmful substances that would leak into the ground along with the regular trash once the monitor was disposed of in the landfill.
Obsolescence, development of new technologies and massive marketing campaigns that make people want to buy the latest models result in a fast-growing surplus of discarded electronic equipment around the world. Electronic equipment has revolutionized the way we communicate, but most of these items contain serious contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium and brominated flame retardants that need to be carefully disposed of.
Many states have “diversion from landfill” legislation that requires electronic equipment to be collected and processed separately form garbage. In April 2000, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to make it illegal to dispose of CRT (cathode ray tubes) in landfills. In Europe, these regulations and bans date to the 1990’s. As of 2008, 17 states in the U.S. had enacted responsibility laws and 35 states were considering electronic recycling laws. Earlier this year, the state of Washington passed legislation requiring manufacturers of electronic goods to pay for recycling and establishing a statewide network of collection points.
EPA has been working to educate consumers on reuse and safe recycling of electronics. This past Earth Day, two bills were passed by the House of Representatives to require EPA to give merit-based grants to universities, government labs and private industries to conduct research on the development of new approaches that would improve recycling and reduction of hazardous materials in electronic devices.
In our household, we throw out our unwanted electronics during an e-cycling drive. Last year, the local Engineers and Surveyors Association held a multi-city e-waste drive during which I not only disposed of an old computer monitor and fax, but also an old TV from my parent’s house. However, there are other options like donating the equipment for refurbishment and resale. The two latter are more common with cellular phones. All of them are much better than throwing electronics into the trash.
About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.