Electronic waste a growing concern

Obsolete gadgets often contain lead, mercury and other hazardous substances.

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTERJanuary 9, 2014 

Christmas gifts of yesteryear meet an inglorious end at Absolute Green Electronics Recycling in Lake Forest, Calif. Computers are dismantled, the parts sorted into cardboard bins. One holds nothing but hard drives, another AC adapters. Bins stretch in rows across a mammoth warehouse — a bin for graphic cards, a bin for cooling fans, also cellphones, VHS camcorders, digital cameras, cables, network switches.

Stacked-up printers form a miniature mountain. Old-fashioned picture tubes sit face-down on pallets. Flat-screen monitors cluster along a wall like tombstones.

“Everything gets separated,” said owner Victor Kianipay. “There are so many layers and layers of product.”

This is electronic waste, or e-waste — a revenue stream for Kianipay, who moved 25,000 pounds of discarded items in last January’s post-Christmas frenzy. E-waste also, despite the work of Kianipay and other entrepreneurial recyclers, is an environmental problem of global proportion. The ever-rising tide of electronic junk now totals nearly 50 million tons a year worldwide, according to the Solving the E-Waste Problem Initiative, a coalition of governments, scientists and industry groups based in Bonn, Germany.

Within five years, the annual figure may reach 65 million tons, the coalition estimates. Hazardous substances contained in the gadgets are released when the waste is melted down to recover gold, silver and copper.

The widespread practice, by some recyclers and waste dealers, of exporting electronic waste to developing countries has created bustling scrap economies in poor parts of China and Africa while exposing large numbers of people to toxins and carcinogens.

“You see all these thousands — literally thousands — of women and young kids whose job is to cook circuit boards,” said Jim Puckett, founder and executive director of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network. The group is named after the Swiss city where international agreements were drafted in the late 1980s and early 1990s to stop the “digital dumping.”

Although 35 nations have adopted the tenets of the Basel Convention, Puckett said, the United States — by far the largest producer of e-waste — has not.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a report posted on its website, said “most discarded consumer electronics end up in our landfills” — a wholly separate environmental problem. No one is sure how much e-waste ends up being exported from the U.S., the EPA says, but “the United States government is concerned that these exports are being mismanaged abroad, causing serious public health and environmental hazards.”

Spurred by environmental activists, Congress and state governments are trying to ensure that e-waste gets properly recycled here. The federal Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, introduced in July and co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., would prohibit the export of toxics-containing electronic junk to nations that cannot process them safely.

The bill has gained bipartisan support and now sits in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said Austin Vevurka, Thompson’s press aide.

“It addresses a growing environmental and health problem and it helps create good-paying recycling jobs in the U.S.,” Vevurka said. “It’s a win-win.”

In addition, President Barack Obama established the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship in 2010 to encourage development of “greener” electronic devices and to boost domestic recycling.

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