17 December 2008: Plan needed to deal with e-waste

Plan needed to deal with e-waste

This past February I wrote about the looming conversion from analog to digital of TV signals and the implications it has for us in terms of our old sets.

The conversion takes place two months from today: February 17, 2009.

In terms of the impact the conversion will have on the environment, the time is not only nigh but critical: TV sets along with computers, monitors, cell phones, and other electrical devices contain highly toxic materials including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, phosphorous, lithium, and polycarbons.

The laptop I am using to compose this piece as well as your TV and cell phone seem harmless enough, and in their completeness they likely are. Nevertheless, their component parts can be lethal.

Ironically, when building such devices, great care is taken to insure the safety of the workers, which has much to do with the humane aspect of workers’ rights. But also, it is about producing safe, marketable products.

Unfortunately, far too many—one is far too many—of the electronic components being replaced will end up in local landfills or in a Chinese or third-world village to be dismantled by the world’s poorest.

A recent 60 Minutes expose looked at what is happening on that scene, and it is grim. Electronic devices mainly consisting of computers and monitors were clandestinely shipped to a depressingly squalid Chinese village essentially run by a Chinese mafia.

The Basal Action Network—www.ban.org—posts this description of the expose on its site: “60 Minutes is going to take you to one of the most toxic places on Earth – a place government officials and gangsters don’t want you to see. It’s a town in China where you can’t breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead.”

There villagers, often without minimal protection such as gloves or surgical masks, get to the business of tearing apart our discarded equipment at times by heating them in a witch’s brew of toxic materials in order to separate the valuable materials.

In addition to the immediate impact it has on the people doing the labor, the waste is dumped or finds its way into their water supply. Consequently, the rate of cancer and other diseases among the villagers is astronomical.

Compounding the outrageous immorality of it—beyond child abuse to genocide—in this case it was traced back to a Colorado recycler that had assured its well-intentioned clients their e-waste would be dismantled in a humanly and ecologically safe manner.

Was the vendor a victim of a scam in which a container from its plant made its way clandestinely to that Chinese village as the owner claims, or was it the perpetrator of an illegal dumping of such goods?

Both 60 Minutes and CBS4 did their investigations and you can access both on their websites.

My task, though, is not to judge the company, although the city of Denver has cancelled its contract with it, but to get every owner of every electronic device aware of the implications of owning such dangerous items and the inherent responsibility of disposing them in a safe manner.

Only a few states have regulations regarding the disposal of e-waste. Colorado is not one of them.

What makes sense is a state-run deposit system.

My proposal: for every such product purchased, an excess charge of perhaps 20 percent of its value with a minimum of $50 be added to the purchase. When the product is no longer usable, the owner at the time would return it to a credible recycling facility. The facility would receive a portion of the deposit to cover its costs with the rest being returned to the owner. Product serial numbers scanned into a data base can easily track the devices.

I have been in contact with Rep. Claire Levy to see what can be done about getting the issue before the legislature.

Levy says she is “extremely concerned that the metals in electronic waste are potentially a huge source of contamination if thousands of used computers, cell phones and other electronic devises are simply dumped in our landfills.

“Colorado needs to address this problem. Colorado also needs a comprehensive recycling plan for plastic, metal, paper and other recyclables to reduce our resource consumption, prevent pollution from land fills, and save space in landfills.”

With so many other pressing issues, it might be a challenge to get it done this session, but with pressure from the public, mountains can be moved and legislative agendas can be modified.

On December 13, John Miller of Guaranteed Recycling Xperts was my guest on KYGT. If you missed it, you can listen to the show on the KYGT website at kygt.org to learn more about the enormity of the problem as well as the responsible steps you can take to mitigate your participation in this human and ecological catastrophe.

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