Saturday, January 3, 2009

Mining e-waste: The New Gold Rush?

From April 2007 to February 2008, the city of Odate, Japan
gathered about 17 tons of e-waste (according to a report from Harufumi Mori in Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper). The gadgets collected range from broken appliances to hair dryers to cell phones -- all too small to fall under the scope of recycling laws in Japan. By putting collection bins outside supermarkets and community centers the city diverted small electronics from landfills and turned their e-waste into cash.

After looking through just over one-third of the waste, Mori reports that Odate might find as much as half a kilogram of tantalum, one kilogram of gold, and as much as 4 kilograms of silver and palladium. All of this in less than one year of collections in a city of 80,000 in a country with over 127 million residents. Imagine what a city the size of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles could recover?

The United States generates more e-waste than any other nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some of that waste is recycled. For example, steel, aluminum and copper are often stripped from outdated machines and reused in newer models.

But even recycled parts come at a price. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of e-waste collected in the United States for recycling is exported to areas such as China, India or Pakistan, where workers taking apart the old machines are handling toxic chemicals that can pose serious health problems.

Some manufacturers are beginning to assume greater responsibility for what happens to their products after they become obsolete. For example, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, IBM, and Sharp have programs to collect old computers, monitors, televisions, and other electronics.
Japan and the European Union have adopted progressive e-waste recycling laws. The European parliament approved legislative mandates to require manufacturers to cover the recycling and collection costs for their own take-back programs.

Europe's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive are setting the global standard for computer recycling. Under the RoHS initiative, any manufacturer who wants to do business in Europe has to produce lead-free products.

The Computer Report Card from Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says that some U.S. companies have a double standard when it comes to recycling. While some companies have implemented recycling policies in the European Union and Japan, where such programs are mandated, they've yet to do so in the United States.

Our favorite resource for recycling information is Earth 911 - your one-stop shop for all you need to know about reducing your impact, reusing what you’ve got and recycling your trash. Earth 911 was founded in 1991 and started off as a hot line for recycling. It has grown into a mature, intelligent and attractive site. They also maintain a bilingual hot line, 1-800-CLEANUP.

The Earth 911 recycling database can help you find over 100,000 recycling locations across the country. With information provided by local governments, industry insiders, organizations and everyday consumers, you can recycle hundreds of products from packing peanuts to computers.

Let one of your goals for 2009 to be learning the four R’s: (From Earth 911)

Reduce: Waste reduction is the process and the policy of reducing the amount of waste produced and ultimately disposed. Waste reduction or waste minimization, also known as source reduction, is simply reducing waste at its source. In the waste management hierarchy the most effective policies and processes are mentioned first. Waste minimization is also strongly related to efforts to minimize resource and energy use. The fewer materials used for the same production output means that less waste is produced.

Reuse: When you use an item more than once, it is called reuse. Conventional reuse is where an item is used again for the same function, like when you refill a coffee cup instead of throwing it in the trash. It is also reuse when an item is reused for a different purpose, like when you use a 2-liter soda bottle as a seed-starter greenhouse.

Reuse helps the planet, but it also saves money. Today’s consumer is becoming more aware of environmental concerns and this awareness is gradually changing business and government policies, and consumer attitudes about what the convenience of a disposable society is really costing us.

Recycle: Recycling is the processing of making used items into new raw material. Recycling conserves our natural raw material resources, and typically uses much less energy. Saving energy means that smokestack emissions of greenhouse gas and other pollutants like mercury are reduced at the power plant, and our energy sources are not depleted as quickly. Recycling is critical to today’s waste management programs.

React: Conscientious Earth citizens have the ability to learn about the right things to do. After you learn, get out of your chair and actually do something about it: React! Make today the day YOU start to do something about it.

Until next time…become the change you imagine.


SmplyForties said...

What are Dell & HP doing with the old computers, etc., that they take back? Shipping things overseas to be recycled doesn't seem all that green. Good article!

Izmet said...

Dell Recycling Recognized With IDC G.R.A.D.E. Certification (

I am still trying to find out specifically where the non-recyclable, non-reusable e-waste for HP ends up, but it has been difficult.

Thanks for your comment!