Europe Cracks Down On E-Waste

Recycling in the United States: The Promised Landfill

photo, Plastic monitor cases go into a shredder for recycling
Image: Left: WUF Technologies; Right: Basel Action Network
Plastic monitor cases go into a shredder for recycling [left]. Discarded U.S. monitors often find their way to China [right], where they are smashed to free their copper yokes, a hazardous process: workers inhale toxic phosphor dust, and groundwater becomes contaminated with lead.

Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Apple run viable take-back programs in Europe, and IBM once demonstrated a computer housed entirely in recycled plastics. But the only company to do any free take-back in the United States is Sony Corp. (Tokyo). So far, U.S. e-recycling involves discretionary programs and limited results. Yet 500 million PCs may become obsolete in the United States by 2007, according to a 1999 National Safety Council study that began tracking the machines in 1997.

State governments are tentatively developing firmer e-recycling laws. Massachusetts banned cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) from landfills in 2000. Other states have shown similar interest, but Massachusetts' experiment proved costly. In the ban's first year, according to Solid Waste Report, a trade journal, the state had to exceed its budget for grants to recycling operators by 76 percent. If producers had to cover the costs of reclaiming CRTs, Massachusetts might be out less money. But Mark Lennon, chief executive officer of recycling consultancy Wuf Technologies (Concord, N.H.), says that public e-waste policy "doesn't seem to be tied in any meaningful way to producer responsibility."

That's not for lack of available technology. Besides MBA Polymers Inc. (Richmond, Calif.), which aims to become a global operation, and large shops like Envirocycle (Hallstead, Pa.), many small recycling firms operate on the East Coast. DMC Recycling Inc. (Newfields, N.H.) claims it can recycle 60 million kilograms of electronic equipment each year.

But federal waste policy makes this record a mixed ecological blessing. U.S. recycling firms often sell scrap to brokers who ship it to Southeast Asia, according to a recent report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (San Jose, Calif.) and the Basel Action Network (Seattle, Wash.). The latter's Jim Puckett visited China and saw workers destroying CRTs without doing anything to prevent hazardous materials from entering groundwater. Unless laws impose stricter producer responsibility, says Lennon, U.S. e-recycling may damage the environment more than many realize.