E-waste

Innovating our Way to a Cleaner Future

The history of environmental protection in the United States is a history of innovation. From catalytic converters to advanced batteries, technological innovations have helped us protect our health and environment by reducing pollution.

With that history in mind, today EPA announced more than $2 million in contracts to seven small businesses to develop sustainable technologies that can help protect our environment. EPA’s funding will support technologies ranging from an E-waste recycling process that will help recover valuable resources from industrial scrap to an environmentally friendly insulation that can support energy efficiency in green buildings.

One company receiving SBIR funding is developing an efficient and low-cost manufacturing method to recycle rare earth-based magnets from industrial scrap.

One company receiving SBIR funding is developing an efficient and low-cost manufacturing method to recycle rare earth-based magnets from industrial scrap.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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The Federal Green Challenge – Working for a Better Tomorrow

By André Villaseñor

The motto of EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) program is “changing how we think about our resources for a better tomorrow.” One team of federal employees has been doing just that by changing the minds of colleagues through education and outreach.

The Chet Holifield Federal Building is a one-million square foot federal building in Laguna Niguel, California, occupied by 1900 federal employees representing about a dozen government agencies. The building is named after a long-term former member of Congress from California.  Through the creation of a “Green Team,” five of the building’s federal agencies are leading the charge toward moving Chet Holifield’s occupants in the direction of energy efficiency, water-use reductions and increased recycling. The Green Team, consisting of employees from Citizenship & Immigration Services, the Internal Revenue Service, and the General Services Administration was formed to carry out the goals of the Federal Green Challenge (FGC). The FGC is a national initiative of EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Program, challenging EPA and other federal agencies to lead by example in reducing the Federal Government’s environmental impacts around the nation.

The Chet Holifield Green Team was pleasantly surprised to learn just how much they could reduce their building’s environmental impact through a series of cost-effective behavior change strategies. The Green Team pursued a multi-pronged strategy of engaging all 1900 building employees in a variety of educational activities designed to raise environmental awareness, including e-waste collection programs, informational posters, Earth Day/Week events, and training workshops. The ‘green’ education and outreach provided by the Green Team motivated and enabled employees to act more sustainably. The Green Team carefully measured the results of its progress on a monthly basis for a period of one year, both by tracking actual data on metrics such as electricity consumption and recycling, and collecting anecdotal information using employee surveys about activities such as commuting. I witnessed this diligence first-hand by participating in a series of Green Team phone calls with the employees of the Chet Holifield Federal Building.

Clearly, the Chet Holifield Green Team put into practice a winning equation of inspiration and cooperation that adds up to a better tomorrow. Chet Holifield’s end-of-year results for 2012 include a 21% increase in recycling, a water-use decrease of 7.4%, and a fuel decrease of 2.5%. Not only did the Green Team get the environmental results it was aiming for; Chet Holifield employees have changed the way they think about their use of resources, which holds great promise for a better tomorrow for Laguna Niguel and beyond.

About the author: André Villaseñor, a Waste Division employee, fulfills EPA’s mission from Region 9’s Southern CA Field Office in Los Angeles. He is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Global Approach to Managing the Holidays’ Hottest Gadgets

Discarded televisions being weighed before recycling in Taiwan

By Panah Bhalla

As we begin our holiday shopping this year, it is hard not to notice how important electric and electronic devices have become in our everyday lives. But with their welcomed constant upgrades, we have to figure out what to do with these products when they stop working or become outdated “e-waste”. As was mentioned by a previous blogger, electronic devices can contain valuable resources such as copper, gold, and silver. But they can also contain harmful materials such as lead and mercury that can pollute the environment and affect human health. A study I read recently estimated that e-waste could increase by 700% over the next 15 years. This growth presents a particular risk for developing countries, where impoverished communities dismantle old appliances and electronics by hand and without adequate safety precautions in order to make money from the scrap metal inside. In addition to the supply of old devices from their own countries, the growing stream of e-waste that ends up in developing nations around the world includes items that were purchased, used, and disposed of in countries like the United States.

Last month I participated in a workshop in Taiwan on how to manage e-waste in an environmentally sound manner. I joined representatives from 13 countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Nigeria, Ghana, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. The bulk of the workshop focused on the recycling system in Taiwan, where fees from producers and importers of new electronics are used to subsidize the safe recycling of e-waste. From the outset, participants asked detailed questions, wanting to know all the intricacies of the fee-based system.

As I watched the discussions unfold, I realized that this workshop was a perfect example of why the President’s National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship charged EPA to work with developing countries on safe e-waste management. At this workshop, we were all working towards the common goal of reducing threats to health and the environment while maintaining economic opportunities for individuals involved in recycling. Nobody had all of the answers, but everybody was learning from each other and identifying new strategies they could implement back home. At the end of the week, we decided to create a formal network to help us share our experiences on an ongoing basis. It is clear that the pollution and health threats associated with e-waste recycling are significant, but by taking a collaborative international approach like this, we all stand to benefit. As we shop for family and friends this holiday season, we can feel confident that the global community is working together to address the challenge of recycling these gadgets safely.

To learn more about my work visit

About the author: Panah Bhalla works in the Office of International and Tribal Affairs as the lead on e-waste issues for the Asia-Pacific and Latin American/Caribbean regions. She holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and lives in Washington, D.C.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Addressing E-Waste at Rio+20

By Walker Smith

On Tuesday I participated in a webcast from the U.S. Center at Rio+20 about an internet challenge to come up with creative solutions to the global problem of e-Waste. EPA, along with the State Department, OpenIdeo and the Brazilian bank Itau Unibanco, announced an e-Waste Challenge to generate ideas for solutions to a variety of e-waste issues. We’re anticipating that this effort will initially reach 30,000 people, and eventually many, many more as social networks take this up and communities get more creative. Whether the challenge results in brand-new, innovative solutions, or helps apply our knowledge and experience in new and different ways, we’re sure it will help us tackle these issues in both developing and developed countries.

As I stated in the announcement webcast, we are using more and more electronic devices, and don’t have adequate solutions about what to do when them when they wear out. In 2009, over 438 million new consumer electronics were sold in the U.S. alone. The United Nations Environmental Program, UNEP, estimates that between 20 and 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated each year and too much of this e-waste ends up in developing countries that don’t have the capacity to manage the e-waste safely.

E-waste is a priority issue for EPA. We want to reduce the flows of e-waste and build capacity for the e-waste that does reach developing countries. Our efforts have included helping to create the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship which was issued by the U.S. government last year, a joint effort by a number of federal agencies.

We are working domestically to increase recycling, working with the businesses and community groups. On the global front, we are partnering with international organizations, including the United Nations University Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) and the Basel Workgroup, the Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE), a public/private partnership promoting environmentally sound management, developing technical guidance and implementing pilot programs in developing countries. Some of our joint efforts include characterizing the U.S. exports of used electronics in order to help paint a picture of the global flows of these materials; working to assist foreign governments and other stakeholders with capacity building; and working bilaterally with Ethiopia and China to build capacity.

The e-waste problem, however, is a growing one as people around the world rely more on more on electronic devices. The e-waste challenge is designed to harness the imagination and creativity of the virtual community to come up with more solutions to reduce and manage e-waste.

We hope that you will join e-waste challenge and help contribute to solving the problem of e-waste. Visit the website and add your inspiration. Keep checking back to comment and build on others’ ideas. You can also share the challenge on Facebook and join the discussion using #OI_eWaste on Twitter to help build the buzz. If today’s event is any indication, we’ll have more than enough enthusiasm and input to bring exciting new ideas to this critical global sustainability challenge.

About the Author: Walker Smith, is the Director of the Office of Global Affairs and Policy in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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eCycling: the Future is NOW!

By Elizabeth Myer

A few years back, Greening the Apple blogger Sophia Kelley and I worked with the EPA on a series of Electronics Recycling (eCycling) initiatives. eCycling, for those not familiar with the term, is the process of reclaiming electronics from the waste stream, either as whole units ready to be re-used by another consumer, or as parts for materials recovery. I won’t speak for Sophia, but I first became a personal advocate for promoting proper eCycling practices in 2009 when EPA partnered with the band O.A.R. for their Green Dream recycling tour. In October of that year, EPA and the College Music Journal (CMJ) got together during the epic annual CMJ Music Marathon. CMJ went “green” and we helped by setting up shop in their exhibition room with a box for recycling used and unwanted cell phones, cameras, chargers and other electronics. We even went on to record a podcast on the subject!

E-waste on the banks of the Hackensack River (EPA photo)

So why, after all this time, is eCycling still an issue that I feel the need to explore? Perhaps because so many people are still clueless about how serious and widespread this issue is. The desire shared by many Americans to constantly upgrade to the latest cell phone/iProduct/tablet has contributed to a scary reality: electronic waste (e-waste) is growing 2-3 times faster than any other waste stream! Why should that concern you? For one, electronic devices are often composed of materials (lead, nickel, cadmium, and mercury) that could pose risks to the environment and human health if not disposed of properly. Another great reason to donate your used electronics (so long as they still work) is for the benefit of others who may not be able to afford them otherwise.                   

A colleague recently reminded me of an episode of 30 Rock which mocked the reality that New Yorkers often have drawers and closets stuffed with old, unwanted electronics. The segment indicates that many people know that e-waste is bad, but they have no clue where or how to dispose of their old chargers, laptops, cell phones, etc.  EPA has an eCycling locator, complete with links to external sites (like Earth 911) with great resources for finding eCycling centers near your home.

A final tip: don’t forget to erase all personal and confidential data on the old equipment before sending it for recycling or reuse. Happy eCycling!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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E-Cycling

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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BASURA ELECTRONICA

Vi el monitor de computadora un domingo en la noche al lado de los contenedores de basura de una casa a cuatro residencias de la nuestra. De inmediato constaté que, aún con todos los esfuerzos de educación ambiental que hacemos, hay algunas personas que no entienden el daño que causan al ambiente tirando enseres electrónicos a la basura regular. Pensé que quizás alguien se lo llevaría antes que llegase el camión de basura. Sin embargo mi esposo me llamó el lunes en la mañana para indicarme como los trabajadores de recogido de desperdicios habían dispuesto del monitor tirandolo al camión de la basura y como este se hizo añicos ante sus ojos. Y fue así como nuestra mayor preocupación se tornó realidad. Este monitor que desprendía componentes y sustancias químicas peligrosas terminaría junto a la basura regular en el vertedero.

El advenimiento de nuevas tecnologías, la obsolencia de équipos electrónicos junto a campañas publicitarias que destacan las virtudes de tal o más cual equipo han creado a nivel mundial un exceso de electrónicos que son descartados cada año por un modelo más eficiente. Si bien han revolucionado la manera en la que nos comunicamos, no podemos perder de vista que muchos de estos equipos también contienen contaminantes como plomo, cadmio y berilio, entre otros, que necesitan ser dispuestos adecuadamente.

Muchos estados tienen legislación que prohibe de su disposición en los vertederos. Estos equipos deben ser recogidos y procesados fuera de la corriente regular. El estado de Massachussets fue el primero en hacer ilegal la disposición de tubos de rayo catódico (CTR, por sus siglas en inglés) en abril del 2000. En Europa muchas de estas leyes y estatutos de prohibición datan de los años 1990’s. En el 2008 17 estados de Estados Unidos habían creado leyes de responsabilidad y 35 estaban considerando establecer leyes de reciclaje de electrónicos. Al presente, el estado de Washington pasó legislación requiriendo a los manufactureros de equipos de este tipo pagar por el reciclaje de estos y establecer puntos de recogido a través del estado.

La EPA ha trabajado arduamente para educar a la ciudadanía sobre el reuso y el reciclaje seguro de estos equipos. Durante la conmemoración del Día Internacional de la Tierra este año la Legislatura aprobó dos medidas que le dan a la EPA la facultad de otorgar subvenciones a universidades, laboratorios del gobierno y la industria privada para llevar a cabo investigaciones sobre el desarrollo de nuevas formas de mejorar el reciclaje de electrónicos y reducir los componentes peligrosos en estos equipos.

En nuestro hogar llevamos nuestros equipos electrónicos al recogido anual que hace el Colegio de Ingenieros y Agrimensores. El año pasado llevé una computadora vieja y un fax junto a un televisor viejo de la casa de mis padres. Sin mebargo hay otras opciones como donar el equipo, revenderlo o arreglarlo. Las últimas dos son muy comunes con equipos como teléfonos. Cualquiera de estas opciones es mejor que tirarlo a la basura.

Sobre la autor: Brenda Reyes Tomassini se unió a la EPA en el 2002. Labora como especialista de relaciones públicas en la oficina de EPA en San Juan, Puerto Rico donde también maneja asuntos comunitarios para la División de Protección Ambiental del Caribe.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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