In 2014, Guiyu, China, was considered one of the most contaminated places in the industrialized world. For more than a decade, the city’s economy thrived on disposing of and recycling used electronics and components (e-waste). But unknown to its leaders and residents, the e-waste factories that generated jobs and income for their community were also contaminating their air, soil and water with toxic heavy metals like cadmium and lead.
In January of this year, cases like Guiya and numerous others like it led China to impose strict bans on e-waste. While environmentalists have praised the ban as a milestone for forcing countries to manage their own trash, waste exporters still are scrambling for alternatives.
E-waste is valuable. Motherboards, wiring and memory chips contain precious metals like palladium, gold, silver and copper.
But while there is opportunity to recover precious metals from e-waste, there are hazardous risks associated with the handling and recycling of electronic components that contain metals like lead, cadmium, barium, beryllium, chromium and mercury that, if not properly disposed of, are known to cause cancer, organ failure and brain damage.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 15 percent of e-waste is recycled, with American consumers throwing away more than nine million tons of electronics each year. But e-waste is not confined to consumers. Government agencies dispose of e-waste like printers, fax machines, computer servers and scrap wiring.
California’s Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 defines portions of the e-waste stream and regulates recovery and recycling. For more information, please visit CalRecycle.
So, how can your community best manage its e-waste? The familiar three “R”s—reduce, reuse and recycle—remain relevant here. Reduce production of e-waste through strategic acquisition and responsible maintenance, reuse aging technology by donating or selling to a local organization and responsibly recycle equipment for which you no longer have a use. Consider these best practices:
- E-waste recyclers come in all shapes and sizes. Rather than saying “yes” to the first salesman that offers to purchase your community’s e-waste, take the time to conduct your own research and choose a reputable firm that is attuned to your community’s unique needs. CalRecycle offers a directory of approved e-waste collectors and recyclers; ensure that your e-waste solution appears within this list.
- Understand the difference between an e-waste collector, which will transport your materials to a second location, and an e-waste processor, which can manage those materials internally. E-waste collectors simply are permitted by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to have a truck on the road; they typically are not accountable for what happens to the materials that they collect. E-waste processors, however, are permitted and qualified to disassemble and properly recover toxic materials and harvest other components.
- Shop local. California is home to several companies that process materials both responsibly and locally. E-recycling of California, for example, is based in Paramount and operates processing facilities in Paramount, Hayward and Irvine. Check CalRecycle’s directory for additional resources.
- Consider partnering with a major retailer in your community. Some businesses such as Best Buy, Staples and Verizon accept e-waste drop-offs. Or reach out to a local charity, such as Little League, to co-host an e-waste recycling event.
While responsibly recycling e-waste is a complex process, cities must take action to protect our environment, steward public health and stop wasting resources. With proven expertise in e-waste disposal and recycling, the experienced professional staff of MuniEnvironmental is strongly positioned to support governmental agencies as they address this important issue.