Managing E-Waste Responsibly
Recycling is no longer the simple answer it once was—as these universities demonstrate.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
CONGRATULATIONS! THE DATA CENTER consolidation project is a wild success. The refresh of the main computer lab is complete. Your work is done—or is it? What will happen to the equipment that’s no longer needed? That used to be an easy answer: Recycle those computers! But these days, even as the push to recycle old electronic equipment becomes more imperative, it’s not clear exactly what that means.
The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment focuses on the dilemma. According to Edward Newman, recycling and refuse manager for Ohio University, appropriate e-waste management is a cornerstone of the commitment that, as of this writing, has been signed by more than 600 higher ed institutions, including Ohio. “[E-waste management is] part of a larger effort— less toxicity, more reusability, better use of resources, keeping your costs down,” he explains. “It covers all the areas,” he believes, that touch on working toward a greener campus: economics, environment, sustainability.
Yet Newman, who in 2001 cofounded the collegiate recycling competition RecycleMania, is the first to point out that responsible e-waste management is easier to pledge than to practice. Old computers are a fraction of the problem on a university campus. Add to the list monitors, televisions, phones, printers, scientific equipment, batteries, and fluorescent bulbs. And when a new shipment of machines comes in, there are “truckloads of polystyrene and polypropylene, CDs, cardboard, manuals, cabling,” he notes.
To complicate matters further, it’s not clear whether the recycling organization you deal with will handle the material in a responsible—or even legal—way. With documented cases of massive amounts of e-waste illegally ending up in developing countries (see “The Dirty Truth About E-Waste,” page 14), even the most committed college e-waste programs can find themselves part of the problem, not the solution.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
At Ohio U, Newman works hard to do the right thing. For example, the university ensures each ewaste component has its own recycling route. The surplus department takes the computers and does what it can to resell those. Compact discs are sold to a specialty recycling company that separates the components—case, paper, CD—then shreds the CDs into a polycarbonate regrind, which can be used to create new goods out of plastic. (To cut down on CD purchases and waste, Newman’s team and the university’s Office of Sustainability are pushing people to record their data to networked drives.) Cell phones go to an electronic-waste collection company where they’re reset and refurbished. Bulbs are picked up as a separate load for special handling, by the same company that handles the university’s garbage. Batteries are sorted into rechargeable and disposable; the rechargeable ones sell for 12 cents a pound, which about covers the expense of having a Cincinnati company haul away the disposable ones for hazardous waste treatment. All monitors and TVs get placed on pallets and shipped to a buyer in California, who, according to Newman, “swears they’re not doing anything like sending them to a less regulated country.”Everything else—computers that aren’t resalable,phones that aren’t cellular, equipment that’s beyond its usable life—gets hauled away to a scrap yard. Newman has no reason to believe that the scrap yard is doing anything more “sophisticated” than what it has always done: peeling away the tops of junked cars, loading the e-waste scrap into the cars, then crushing the cars and contents into blocks of metal that get sold to steel foundries.
He isn’t entirely satisfied with his options. For example, he’d like to see the boxes new equipment comes in used again, since the university is a repeat customer with the manufacturers. But, as he observes, the truckers are independent operators who make deliveries to the campus and then move on to other deliveries; since they don’t return to the vendors’ factories, there’s no way to get those boxes back.
Even in the midst of doing good work to reduce and reuse, problems crop up downstream, Newman says. Ohio U is doing a great job of converting people to the use of compact fluorescent bulbs. However, those energy-saving bulbs, which contain trace amounts of mercury, are beginning to burn out. They need to be disposed of properly, a fact lost on many people who just put them into the garbage. And the recycling boxes placed around campus to collect this sort of item frequently disappear.
Newman takes creative measures to make Ohio’s campus community more aware of recycling. Most recently he worked with the campus construction shop to convert old metal filing cabinets into recycling bins. By cutting slots in the front of each drawer, Newman and crew have enabled people to dump batteries, CDs, phones, ink-jet cartridges, and compact bulbs into cabinets that otherwise would have been trashed themselves. “We’re painting them in school colors and putting school logos on them,” he says. He’s starting with four and placing them in high-traffic areas; he expects to expand from there. “I’m taking these clunky old things and jazzing them up and giving them new life. They’ll last forever. They won’t get thrown out by anybody.”
A Law of Unintended Consequences
Page 14 of the University of California system’s “Policy on Sustainable Practices,” approved by the regents in late 2009 and adhered to by all 10 UC campuses, states: “The University will require all recyclers of the University’s electronic equipment to have signed the [Basel Action Network’s] Electronics Recyclers Pledge of True Stewardship, agreeing to a rigorous set of environmental criteria.”
That’s all well and good, says Lin King, program manager for the R4 Recycling Program at UC-Davis, but he believes the results of this policy may not be as powerful as the regents intended. That’s because of a 2003 California law that provides a funding system for the statewide collection and recycling of certain electronic waste—monitors and televisions, for the most part. Under the law, retailers collect a fee on every sale, which goes into a state fund from which recyclers are compensated when they collect those components as salvage. The problem, according to King, is that the state mandates destruction of what’s collected. “You basically have to destroy it, whether it’s working or not,” he says.
The Dirty Truth About E-Waste
IT DOESN’T SURPRISE SARAH WESTERVELT, e-waste project coordinator for BAN—the BaselAction Network—that schools have a hard time responsibly recycling e-waste. BAN is a nonprofitactivist organization that works to educate the world about the illicit trade that goes onwith toxic substances, including those found in e-waste. As Westervelt explains, e-waste createsa complex waste stream. “It’s not like an aluminum can or a piece of paper. Here, youhave multiple materials all soldered or screwed or snapped together—otherwise comingledand difficult to separate. You’ve also got a lot of hazardous material mixed in with nonhazardousmaterial, and it’s very labor-intensive to separate them out.”
On top of that, there’s little oversight of the companies that process e-waste. “You’ve got somereally good companies in this country that have invested in million-dollar shredders and workerhealth and safety programs,”Westervelt says. “They’re totally restricting where the toxic materialsgo and who manages them. They’re also providing their customers with very detailed reports onevery single unit, serial number by serial number: ‘Here’s how this unit was disposed of.’” But,she adds, those responsible companies have to charge customers for those services. “They arepaying US wages and putting in a lot of due diligence for the downstream,” she notes.
“And then you’ve got companies that are essentially brokers,”Westervelt continues. “They’resourcing material in order to turn around and sell it to the highest bidder. They market it onglobal trader websites, where they’re selling it to anybody who will pay them the highest price.They’ll say, ‘I’ve got this container of this waste; it’s available on this day. Who will give me themost money for it?’ They sign the deal; they take the money and ship that container off towhatever country—regardless of the legality of it.” These companies typically are the ones thatdon’t charge suppliers of e-waste—such as institutions—for their waste products.
Unregulated countries include Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and China, where some equipmentgets sold, but a lot gets dismantled—usually by crude means—for the raw, preciousmaterials they contain. “What’s happening is that the lead, mercury, and arsenic that are in theseelectronic devices are ending up just dispersed in the ecosphere, in the water, soil, and in the air,especially with the open-air burning in China,”Westervelt says.
BAN has developed a list of “e-stewards,” 41 electronics recyclers that have pledged to followethical e-waste disposal practices, including not shipping electronics offshore. As of presstime, the organization was expected to announce its first certifications in March; companiesthat have gone through an independent audit program to confirm that they’re followingresponsible practices for disposal of the materials they take in.
Westervelt, who says BAN will soon be hiring a person specifically to reach out to universitiesand colleges, insists that higher ed institutions have reasons to care about what they dowith e-waste beyond good Earth-stewardship. “They have a name to protect, a reputation toprotect, and there are also legal liabilities.”
“We change our computers every three to four years. So we’ve got good stuff that is leaving. It’s such a shame to say that we have to destroy that because that’s proper recycling,” King laments. “We need to start asking the secondary question: What can we do with these electronics that still work?”
One of the people King turns to for answers is Robin Ingenthron, who owns a recycling processor company and is the founder of the World Reuse, Repair, and Recycling Association (WR3A), a nonprofit consortium of processors pushing for fair trade standards for international electronics recycling. WR3A acts as a co-op between overseas buyers and sellers of used electronics, for the reusable and repairable products that are allowed under international law.
WR3A has developed a “vetted member” program “to ensure that members are making at least a good faith effort to remove junk” from their overseas shipments, Ingenthron says. Currently, this alternative e-steward has about 20 vetted members. “The idea is that if good people would make the good stuff even more available, the bad people would have a harder time getting away with mixing in the junk,” he explains.
The vetting is done by examining several criteria, including: employees per ton of material processed (a minimal crew suggests it’s only needed for loading equipment into containers, not for taking components apart); destination for bad CRT glass and for printed circuit boards (not every piece is repairable so companies exporting reusable CRTs and boards must be able to document where the bad ones are going); and number of sea containers shipped per year (fewer is better).
The inspector role that organizations such as WR3A play is crucial in helping institutions navigate the labyrinthine world of e-waste management, says King. “Robin is the expert in this and he’s been to many conferences with all these e-waste folks. They know which ones are doing it right and which ones are not.” In addition to UC-Davis, WR3A has working relationships with the University of Vermont, Dartmouth College (NH), and Middlebury College (VT), among others.
King would like to set up a pilot program with other universities around the country to explore the differences in what they’re each doing with e-waste, so they can develop best practices. Until then, he’ll adhere to policy and do what he can to question whether it’s the best solution.
Although there are no easy answers—on that everyone seems to agree—there are plenty of motivations for a campus to really scrutinize its options. As Ohio U’s Newman points out, “Part of it’s the law. Part of it is we’re institutions of higher learning and research, and it’s a good place to work these things out for others to follow suit, whether it’s in your community or schools.”