The nine-month-old "E-Cycle Washington" program has collected an estimated 27 million pounds of TVs, computers and monitors. So where does this e-junk go? The vast majority passes through approved processors who deconstruct the gadgets and send the raw materials back into the production stream.
The nine-month-old “E-Cycle Washington” program has collected an estimated 27 million pounds of TVs, computers and monitors. So where does this e-junk go?
The vast majority passes through approved processors who deconstruct the gadgets and send the raw materials back into the production stream.
Almost every workday, old TVs fill an assembly line inside Sodo recycler Total Reclaim. Workers pry off the black plastic cases that are squashed, baled and eventually ground into pellets and sold to make a wide range of products.
Workers smash the tubes into pieces, pick out metal, and ship the glass to Mexico for power washing and then to India, to be made back into new picture tubes.
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They mince circuit boards to be sent to smelters, and they separate valuable metal such as copper, aluminum and steel that gets resold to manufacturers.
Monitors and computers that aren’t refurbished and reused go through a similar process.
“Disposal in a garbage Dumpster at our facility would be less than 1 percent,” said Craig Lorch, co-owner of Total Reclaim.
The E-Cycle program allows households, small businesses and governments, schools, special-purpose districts and charities to turn in for free their old TVs, computers and monitors.
King County has produced almost 39 percent of the total weight collected. Snohomish County is second with 16 percent. Both counties ban electronics from landfills.
Manufacturers who sell TVs, monitors and computers in Washington pay the entire cost — about $10 million this year — of the E-cycle program. A manufacturer-based board, the Washington Materials Management & Financing Authority, runs the program with oversight by the state Department of Ecology.
The authority has set up drop-off sites across the state. It also coordinates the transportation and handling of the waste and pays the collectors and processors.
Charities are the biggest collectors, and TVs make up more than half of the waste so far. The conversion to all-digital broadcasting led to the discarding of some older TVs, as did the falling prices of big plasma and LCD televisions.
The program aims to keep the electronic waste out of landfills and away from countries with histories of disregarding environmental stewardship and human rights. It also tries to keep as much raw material as possible within the production stream.
Electronic equipment contains toxic materials, including lead, cadmium and mercury, that may leak into the soil and groundwater when disposed of in landfills. The average CRT (cathode ray tube) computer monitor contains four to eight pounds of lead.
Seattle’s Basel Action Network (BAN) and other toxic-waste watchdogs have chronicled how some companies, under the guise of recycling, export the electronic equipment to Third World countries where the material is dumped.
Seattle’s Total Reclaim and seven other “preferred processors” — four of which are in King and Snohomish counties — must follow strict rules and account for where the materials go.
“If someone can’t or won’t disclose where the material is going, then you have a good reason to ask,” Lorch said. “I have personally visited most of them — including three in Asia — but where that is not possible, I hire a third-party auditor to conduct the audits, which are very comprehensive.”
Total Reclaim and some of the other preferred processors have signed BAN’s “Pledge of True Product Stewardship,” which commits them to handle hazardous e-waste responsibly.
Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewardship director for BAN, says her group would like more up-to-date information on the exact path the materials take. Currently, processors have to reveal their downstream subcontractors once a year, but BAN wants that information available in “real time,” so the destination of toxic material and its handling can be visible to the public.
BAN also thinks the law should be expanded to cover other electronics such as cellphones and fax machines. People now expect to be able to get rid of their electronics for free, so they may be more likely to hand over their cellphones and such to someone who will ship the whole device overseas.
Westervelt says people should look for the “e-Stewards” logo when recycling their e-waste or check on the Web site, www.e-stewards.org. E-Stewards is a group of North American electronics recyclers and asset managers who have been qualified as upholding the highest standard of environmental and social responsibility.
Miles Kuntz, spokesman for the state Department of Ecology, said the agency hopes to expand E-Cycle’s program, but there are not yet “serious discussions” about it.
Richard Seven: 206-464-2241 or firstname.lastname@example.org