Sustainable Electronics Initiative

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The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) is dedicated to the development and implementation of a more sustainable system for designing, producing, using, and managing electronic devices.

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Pollution Prevention Week: E-waste and the World’s Most Polluted Places

Happy P2 Week, Everyone! If you’ve never heard of this celebration, P2 stands for Pollution Prevention, and P2 Week is celebrated from September 15-21, 2014. P2 Week is in fact celebrated annually during the third week in September, and according to the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR), it’s “an opportunity for individuals, businesses, and government to emphasize and highlight their pollution prevention and sustainability activities and achievements, expand current pollution prevention efforts, and commit to new actions.” Check out their site and P2 Week Tool Kit, as well as the US EPA’s Pollution Prevention Week page for tips on preventing pollution at home and work.

Top Ten Toxic Threats Report CoverPreventing pollution is of particular importance when it comes to considerations of sustainable electronics design, manufacture, use, and disposal, given that an annual report by the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland included for the first time in 2013, Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, as one of the ten most polluted places on Earth.  The Top Ten Toxic Threats: Cleanup, Progress, and Ongoing Challenges 2013 edition “presents a new list of the top ten polluted places and provides updates on sites previously published by Blacksmith and Green Cross. A range of pollution sources and contaminants are cited, including hexavalent chromium from tanneries and heavy metals released from smelting operations. The report estimates that sites like those listed in the top ten pose a health risk to more than 200 million people in low- and medium-income countries.” Other notoriously contaminated sites on the list include Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the Citarum River in Indonesia, and the heavy concentration of tanneries in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh.

The Agbogbloshie site has been the focus of a lot of recent media attention due to the extensive environmental degradation caused there by informal electronics recycling; it is the second largest electronic waste processing site in West Africa. If you would like to see the extent of the pollution, and get a feel for the lives of the people who work in the area, some of whom are children, I recommend the film Terra Blight. (See my previous post on this film’s inclusion in a sustainability film festival on campus, and the LibGuide that accompanies the films from the festival. The film can be checked out from the Prairie Research Institute Library by those on the UI campus or via interlibrary loan.) A number of striking photo essays have also been published, including one earlier this year in the Guardian by photographer Kevin McElvaney. The film and photos show us the stark consequences of endless manufacturing advances and consumer quests for upgrades. Gadgets that aren’t responsibly recycled may end up in landfills, or worse–in places like Agbogbloshie where the poor try to earn an honest living processing the waste to salvage precious materials using whatever means are available, including fire or rocks to hammer open lead-laden monitors.

It is the lead spilled into the environment through informal recycling that earns Agbogbloshie its place on the Top Ten Toxic Threats list, though certainly other toxins are released from the electronics processed there. From the report’s highlights: “Agbogbloshie is a vibrant informal settlement with considerable overlap between industrial, commercial, and residential zones. Heavy metals released in the burning process easily migrate into homes, food markets, and other public areas. Samples taken around the perimeter of Agbogbloshie, for instance, found a presence of lead levels as high as 18,125 ppm in soil. The US EPA standard for lead in soil is 400 ppm. Another set of samples taken from five workers on the site found aluminum, copper, iron, and lead levels above ACGIH TLV guidelines. For instance, it was found that one volunteer had aluminum exposure levels of 17 mg/m3 compared with the ACGIH TLV guideline of 1.0 mg/m3.”

Lest you think the answer to this tragedy lies exclusively in preventing export of unwanted electronics from the first world to the third, increasingly developing countries are becoming sources of e-waste themselves. Indeed, the Top Ten Toxic Threats report notes “Ghana annually imports around 215,000 tons of secondhand consumer electronics from abroad, primarily from Western Europe, and generates another 129,000 tons of e-waste every year.” Even if it weren’t true that developing countries are also sources of e-waste, cutting off certain flows of such waste ultimately shifts problems from one place to another, resulting in different, yet still complicated issues. The leaded glass in CRTs, for example, is becoming increasingly difficult to process, as the demand for its reuse in the creation of new CRT monitors is dwindling. Currently only one manufacturer of CRT monitors remains, in India. Within the US states struggle to find ways to deal with massive amounts of CRT glass from obsolete TVs and computer monitors, leading to controversy over proposed uses (such as alternative daily cover material in landfills) and nightmarish stories of CRT glass stockpiles being left for authorities to manage after recycling operations go out of business.

The point is that the only long-term solution to stopping environmental degradation in places like Agbogbloshie, and the struggles to find safe and widely accepted end-of-life management options for electronics and all their components is to practice true pollution prevention–through source reduction, modification of production processes, promotion of non-toxic or less toxic materials, conservation of natural resources, and reuse of materials to prevent their inclusion in waste streams. This will by no means be easy, nor will the changes necessary happen overnight. But it’s work that must be done, and done by ALL of us, in whatever way we interact with the electronics product lifecycle. Designers and manufacturers must learn and practice green chemistry and green engineering. Consumers must become aware of the sustainability issues surrounding electronics and make more informed choices–including buying less by extending the useful lives of devices as much as possible. And recyclers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and consumers must all work to ensure that materials from products that have reached the end of their first intended life be collected and reclaimed for use in new processes. Electronics are something we all use, at home and at work, in one form or another. And through images and statistics like those from Agbogbloshie, we understand that environmental and social impacts of our industrial world do not truly go “away” any more than waste itself does.

To learn more about pollution prevention, visit the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR) web site. GLRPPR is posting P2 week information all week on its blog, including two posts contributed by SEI related to electronics. Check out the GLRPPR blog on Tuesday (9/16/14) for source reduction tips for electronics consumers, and on Thursday (9/18/14) for information on flame retardants and electronics.

Champaign County Options for Electronics Recycling & Reuse

Pile of abandoned computers and monitors in empty school classroom.If you’re like most people, you probably have an old computer, laptop, or TV stashed in your basement, closet, or garage. It’s important to recycle these devices responsibly, as they contain both valuable materials (e.g. gold, copper, rare earth elements, etc.) and substances that could cause human and environmental health problems if improperly handled during disposal (e.g. lead, mercury, flame retardants, etc.). In fact, it’s against Illinois state law to dispose of certain electronics in landfills, so these items cannot be put in your household trash. To learn more about the Illinois Electronic Products Recycling & Reuse Act, see the Illinois EPA web site and the full text of the legislation at http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/95/SB/PDF/09500SB2313lv.pdf.

Where to take your stuff

Residents of Champaign County, IL are lucky to have multiple options for recycling of unwanted electronics. See the Champaign County Electronics Recycling Guide for the names and locations of local businesses that offer electronics recycling year-round, complete with contact information and any restrictions that apply.

Note that there are two local businesses, Best Buy at 2117 N. Prospect and Habitat ReStore at 119 E. University Avenue, which accept old cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions and computer monitors. Best Buy accepts up to 3 TVs per household per day in store for free, provided screens are less than 32 inches in diameter. For CRT TVs over 32 inches and flat panels over 60 inches, Best Buy will haul the devices away from a customer’s home for free, only if they purchase a new TV from Best Buy. If a purchase from Best Buy is not made, the recycling service is still available, but for a $100 fee. Habitat ReStore accepts televisions or CRT monitors if a voucher is purchased for in-store use at a cost ranging from $10 to $50 per television or CRT monitor recycled, depending on size. (Goodwill will accept only flat screen TVs that are in good working order.) See the Champaign County Electronics Recycling Guide for complete details. Recycling of CRT TVs and computer monitors is becoming more difficult. Susan Monte, Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, explains some of the reasons that electronics recyclers have stopped accepting TVs or tube monitors. “In Illinois, the statewide system for recycling and/or reuse of electronics items discarded from residences requires electronic manufacturers doing business in Illinois to participate in ‘end-of-life’ management of these electronic products. At this time, electronics manufacturers have met their pre-established quotas for pounds of electronics to recycle/reuse for the fiscal year, and they have stopped paying electronics recycling companies to recycle electronics items.” Televisions and cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors comprise nearly half of the electronics items brought to the residential collections. Expenses incurred by electronics recycling contractors to responsibly recycle televisions and CRT monitors far outweigh revenue.  In fact, Champaign County had planned to host an electronics recycling collection events for residents on October 11, 2014, but that event has been canceled because of the cost issue for the recycling contractor now that the manufacturer quota has been met. Monte says, “If electronics manufacturers doing business in Illinois continue to meet early quotas for pounds of electronics items collected, we may potentially plan for one or two Countywide Residential Electronics Collections to take place in the Champaign-Urbana area next spring.”  Be sure to check the county recycling guide to see if dates of upcoming events have been added (if so, they’ll be featured at the top of the document); alternatively you can always call the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission at 217-328-3313.

For information on battery recycling, check ISTC’s Battery Recycling LibGuide at http://uiuc.libguides.com/battery-recycling/cu.

For fluorescent lamps and CFLs, see the City of Urbana”Where Do I Recycle It?” page at http://urbanaillinois.us/residents/recycling-program-u-cycle/where-do-i-take-it and the City of Champaign Recycling guide at http://ci.champaign.il.us/cms/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Recycle-guide.pdf. Alternatively, you can order pre-paid mail kits (options for both CFLs & tubes) from

Can you repair devices or pass them on?

If your unwanted electronics still function please consider passing them on to friends or relatives, or donating them to an appropriate charity. If they have minor flaws or damage, check the iFixit web site to see if there are repair guides that you can follow to return get your device running again. (Yes, you can do it! I’ve had students work on iFixit guides as class projects. You don’t need to be a tech expert to repair something you own!) It’s important to extend the useful life of electronic devices for as long as possible before recycling them, because of the huge investment of human and natural resources that go into their manufacture in the first place. For example, did you know that the majority of energy used in the life cycle of a computer is in its production, not in the time it’s used by a consumer? (See http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=1299692&tag=1 and http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652611000801 for research on this subject.)

When in doubt, give Joy a shout

So be on the look out for county electronics collection events in the future, and in the meantime, check out the local business in the county recycling guide to avoid the lines. And if your device is unwanted rather than broken, or only slightly damaged, consider giving it a new home or repairing it before it’s sent for recycling. If you aren’t sure where or if you can recycle a device, you can also contact me at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. I’ll help steer you in the right direction.

Many thanks to Susan Monte for the update on the county collection event and for the county’s press release, from which her quotes are taken. Mentions of businesses in this post are for information only and should not be construed as endorsements.

View Older Posts at the SEI Blog Archive

Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

Donate/Recycle Electronics

Find out where to recycle or donate your old electronics or find options near you at earth911.com.

2013 International Sustainable Electronics Competition

International E-Waste Design CompetitionWinners were announced at ISTC on December 5, 2013. Read the press release here. View the winning videos here.

 

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GLRPPR

Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable

The SEI has partnered with the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR) to create a sustainable future.