New E-Cycle program to help Puget Sound?By Clea Hersperger | March 2nd, 2009 | Category: Featured story, Get Involved |
By Sound News Reporter Clea Hersperger
Millions of pounds of electronics are tossed in the trash each year, where they decompose and can leak harmful toxics into Puget Sound. A new, free, recycling program is part of the state’s solution to protect the health of our environment.
E-Cycle Washington is a new program providing responsible recycling of electronic goods, for free. It is a collaborative effort between the Washington State Department of Ecology, electronics manufacturers, electronics retailers, local governments and non-profit organizations, all “working for a better Washington.”
While it is typical to pay a fee for recycling electronics like computers, monitors and televisions, in January 2009, electronics manufacturers in Washington took responsibility for the cost of safely disposing these products. E-Cycle opened authorized collection points at 200 locations across the state, providing e-cycling services to consumers, small businesses, school districts, small governments, special purpose districts and charities, free of charge.
Electronics contain toxics like lead, cadmium, mercury and hazardous chemicals harmful to human and environmental health. According to the E-Cycle Coordinator at the Department of Ecology, Miles Kuntz, there is no landfill ban in Washington, so it is “entirely possible” for electronics to go into landfills, degrade and decompose, eventually seeping into the soil and water and reaching Puget Sound.
“Roadside and other dumping can result in toxics being drained in the Sound,” says Kuntz, “so reducing or eliminating those occurrences is one more step toward a cleaner Puget Sound.”
While state environmental officials say e-cycling could keep toxics out of Puget Sound, they don’t know how big an impact electronics actually have. The state decided to “focus less on quantity” and instead began work on “preventing it,” despite the fact that it “cannot say that it has been confirmed that toxics from electronics are reaching the Sound,” said Kuntz. There are no numbers for the levels of toxics from electronic waste or for the impacts of current electronic handling.
“We would have used numbers during the legislative process if we had them,” said Kuntz. “Measuring that would be a daunting task – we have no plans to try and do so.”
In March 2006, Governor Christine Gregoire signed bill HB 2662 in legislation, requiring manufacturers to fund the costs of collecting, transporting and disposing of old electronics.
Testimonies opposing the bill argued this legislation would place a disproportionate burden on manufacturers, who have the least experience operating a program but are required to determine how to fund and organize one. Electronics manufacturers, like Panasonic, Sony and Sharp, feared the costs involved. According to House Bill Report HB 2662, the manufacturers will have to pay what they see as a tax. In-state companies will be more disadvantaged, directly impacting their ability to stay in business, since the payments required by the bill of 50 cents per pound are higher than costs in other states.
The testimony against the bill argues the costs will not encourage green design, because manufacturers already spend millions on environmental design, and they already participate in many activities and recycling events.
According to Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network, the “original intent” of legislation was to create an incentive for manufacturers to make their products greener. Unfortunately, “not one individual company has an incentive to…make their products greener or easier to recycle,” said Puckett, due to the current system of “combining all the waste together and not sorting it by brand.”
The Basel Action Network is a Seattle-based group that has advocated against dumping electronic waste in Third World countries. Puckett says the bill keeps waste out of landfills and puts it in recycling, but 80% of what is going to recycling is sent offshore.
“It’s just flowing out of the country right, left and center,” Puckett said, and “if we ship it offshore, it will indirectly come back and haunt us, because what we observe in China is they burn it into the atmosphere and it comes back… air pollution from China goes directly into the Cascades.”
It is also important to consider the fact that there is only one active landfill in King County. As much as 80% of our recycling is exported, and so is most of our waste, which is not sitting in landfills, decomposing and leaking toxics into the Sound.
However, many groups welcomed the legislation with open arms.
“This is landmark legislation,” said Mo McBroom, with the Washington Environmental Council, “It’s the biggest advancement in recycling in over a generation.”
Following a two-year study by the Department of Ecology on recycling alternatives for electronics, the new law and E-Cycle program were seen as arriving at a crucial time, with many people upgrading to high-definition television.
E-Cycle tries to manage electronic materials in a more responsible way from the human and environmental health standpoint, because the toxics found in electronics can cause serious harm.
Fish absorb mercury, lead and other toxics as they concentrate through the food chain. When we then eat fish, it impacts human health. According to Michael Bergman, toxics educator at the Department of Ecology, while it is extremely difficult to quantify and study problems of such magnitude, the negative impacts of some toxics have been researched and well-documented.
Mercury, a potent brain poison, is one concern. According to a press release from Tom Emrich of RE Lectronics, a new program of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the amount of mercury in a thermometer, 1/70 of a teaspoon, can contaminate all of the fish in a 20-acre lake, demonstrating how small amounts of toxics have far reaching impacts.
“Lead is one of the biggest concerns regarding electronics and I have read somewhere that electronics is the biggest contributor of lead to our landfills, which may ultimately have an impact on the Sound,” said Kuntz. The average computer monitor contains four pounds of lead, which is a precursor to learning disabilities in exposed children.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, chemical flame-retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are added to electronic devices. These have been found in the Sound behaving like PCBs. They get trapped in marine life and concentrated in the food chain, eventually reaching humans. PBDEs have been found in human breast milk. Scientists discovered they can affect liver and thyroid function and cause behavioral and developmental problems following high exposure in the womb.
E-cycling keeps all of these toxics and chemicals off of the streets and out of landfills and incinerators, and recovers valuable resources by reusing materials for new products.
Despite his concerns, Puckett believes e-cyling will “definitely” help protect Puget Sound: “If we can keep it out of the landfill and recycle it properly, we will keep the ground water cleaner, and if we don’t throw it into incinerators, we will keep the air cleaner.”
Kuntz said this first month has been “very successful,” with an estimated 3.3 million pounds of electronics collected throughout Washington.