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Old electronics contribute to city toxicity

Shelly Fuhrman | Sunday, January 22, 2012

Welcome back! Another semester means it’s time for the GreenMan to “spring” some new sustainability issues and initiatives into light.

I am sure many Domers were on Santa’s nice list this year, and I have no doubt many of us are back at school with new iPhones, iPads, laptops, Kindles, PlayStations and the like, leaving our old gadgets in a world that’s a twisted version of Toy Story 3 — on a truck or a ship to an unknown place.

But just because these items are no longer directly impacting our own lives does not mean they are not having a negative effect on other people’s lives and, like the “System of a Down” song, are contributing to the toxicity of cities around the world.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), electronic waste, or e-waste, is the fastest-growing section of the municipal waste stream. Technology upgrades, everchanging media formats, declining prices and planned obsolescence are the driving forces contributing to this problem.

More often than not these outdated, barely operational, electronic products are exported to developing countries like India, Pakistan, Nigeria and parts of China, where people here use unsafe methods to take them apart to harvest and resell the metal pieces.

But why is this a problem, you say? Well, components like microchips, circuit boards, disk drives, CRT monitors and TVs contain toxins like brominated flame-retardants, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, all of which are known to cause serious health issues.

Circuit boards and covered wires are often burned over open flame to melt away plastic coatings and gain access to the valuable copper underneath, but doing so releases poisonous fumes. Big screen televisions can contain anywhere from four to eight pounds of lead, and when humans are exposed to even minute concentrations of lead, it can have disastrous effects on the heart, kidneys, bones, brain, reproductive and nervous systems.

And the majority of people affected are children and young adults, laboring in an effort to contribute to family funds.

So we know how components of our antiquated electronics can be harmful, but what is the magnitude of scale on which these events occur? Is it really a big deal? The U.S. discards between 300 and 400 million electronic items every year, and guess what?

Only 15 percent of these items are recycled. We’re only talking about the U.S. here, so think about how this number skyrockets when other developed nations are included and you’ll see it’s not a big deal — it’s a huge deal.

Although e-waste comprises only 2 percent of what is taken to landfills, it equates to 70 percent of overall toxic waste, which not only harms people, but does major damage on the environment as well. Guiyu, China is known as the e-waste capital of the world and receives approximately one million tons of discarded electronics annually.

Here, the landscape is an electronic graveyard consisting of mountains of burnt circuit boards, piles of ash, plastics and rivers polluted with acids and other chemicals. How much do these components really effect the environment, you ask?

One study found the dust located adjacent to e-waste sites contained 371 times more lead and 155 times more copper than dust collected from non e-waste sites located only 18.6 miles away.

So how can we prevent our dinosaur-tech toys from contributing to our own extinction? For starters, be sure that you properly recycle your old electronic devices.

On campus, there are battery buckets located in every dorm, usually next to the recycling bins, for you to place old batteries or cell phones. Special bins also exist for CFL light bulbs, which should be disposed of properly since they contain toxic mercury and phosphor.

In addition, plastic mailer envelopes for empty toner and ink cartridges are in the dorms — just slip the envelope in campus mail and they’ll recycle it for you!

For colleges and departments, the NDSurplus program is designed to reduce waste and reallocate technological assets no longer being used by a particular department on campus. University cell phones, PDAs, computers and other items are eligible. More information can be found at surplus.nd.edu

Outside of the ND bubble, many manufacturers, like Apple and Dell, and distributors such as Office Depot have recycling programs in place for products like ink cartridges, cell phones and computers. Websites like gazelle.com will pay the shipping costs for you to send them your old electronics.

The company first tries to reuse your old gadgets, and those that cannot be reused are responsibly recycled. A quick security tip: be sure to wipe all of your personal data from these devices prior to recycling. Before your semester gets too hectic, make a “Spring Semester Resolution” to properly discard and recycle your unused electronics.

The dangers are apparent, and you’re now aware of the resources available to you to limit these dangers, so take advantages of the opportunities you have to make a difference.

Email your predicaments to The GreenMan at

askthegreenman@gmail.com and let him answer you with a sustainable twist. The GreenMan will be here every other week to provide you with insights you never knew you were missing out on until now.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.