Environmentalists Teach Dos and Don'ts of E-Waste

Beginning a new year, for many people, means "out with the old, in with the new." But trashing certain items could cause major health and environmental problems. Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and Garth Hickle, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, talk about their efforts to recycle "e-waste" safely.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Switching gears now from history to a very modern problem.

Maybe you're like me and you just got the Christmas decorations down and the presents put away. And maybe you got a new flat-screen TV or some other hot new device that's all the rage. If so, congratulations. But what are you going to do with the old device? What's called e-waste is causing serious health and environmental problems in developing countries. A few states have passed legislation that requires manufacturers to recycle their products. It might just be the next big thing. But is that enough?

I'm joined by Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and Garth Hickle, product stewardship team leader for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to talk about this.

Welcome to you both.

Ms. BARBARA KYLE (National Coordinator, Electronics TakeBack Coalition): Thank you.

Mr. GARTH HICKLE (Product Stewardship Team Leader, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency): Thank you.

MARTIN: Barbara, if you'd start us off, what is e-waste?

Ms. KYLE: E-waste - electronic waste - is really anything with a circuit board on it. So it's computers, televisions, cell phones, DVD players.

MARTIN: And Garth, what's the scope of the problem? Just in Minnesota, how much e-waste do you think we generate each year?

Mr. HICKLE: Well, it is extremely difficult to actually get a handle on that, because we don't have a sense of actually how much was sold during a particular year, and then how much has been subsequently recycled or disposed of. But we do have some estimate on the sales of products. And in Minnesota, we estimate that about 48 million pounds of video display devices - televisions, computer monitors and laptops - were sold in the state in 2006.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KYLE: Wait, wait. Forty-eight million pounds in one state in one year?

Mr. HICKLE: Yes.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KYLE: Nationally, there's a figure that the recyclers put out of about 400 million units of e-waste scrap each year. So 400 million things - TVs, DVD players, all those - each year gets scrapped.

MARTIN: What happens to it? Because I was thinking about this. Because in my neighborhood, there's a recycling event that they have maybe every quarter or so. And they, you know, set it up very well, and there's a place you can go specifically to take your e-waste. And then I'm thinking, okay, what happens then?

Ms. KYLE: Well, sadly, an awful lot of it isn't really recycled. And what happens with an awful lot of it is it gets very minimally processed here where the recycler might take out some of the most profitable parts to the computers, in particular. And then the rest of it gets shipped overseas, usually to developing countries, a lot of it going to Asia, China in particular. And there, it's really almost virtually dumped. It goes into areas where there are some pretty primitive processing that happens.

If you can just picture literally backyard, recycling yards, where people are bashing open the electronics and removing some of the metals because that's where they can get the money from and then dumping the rest and burning it. When you burn these things, it emits dioxin, which is a horrible thing to be breathing in. And all this is happening right next to where people are working and living.

MARTIN: If you would just clarify for me, why does so much of this waste go to Asia? So that it can be scavenged?

Ms. KYLE: Well, recyclers can make money selling it there. And there is a market for this very primitive system of recycling where they can make money off removing the metals. And many of these countries just don't have the kind of regulatory infrastructure where they can prevent it from happening - prevent it from coming in. So if it comes in in a way that the government knows about it, they will say, no, we won't take it. But it's all illegal import.

MARTIN: What are the negative effects of that kind of recycling, where you said people just basically dump it, burn it? What's wrong with that?

Ms. KYLE: Well, I mean, it's a horrific exposure problem to the communities there. The people that are handling it basically have no kind of protective equipment. You'd think they have literally no gloves, no respirators. They're breathing in these chemicals. Then, when they burn it, the whole communities are breathing in these toxic chemicals. It's getting into their water systems in an area of China call Guayu(ph). Contaminant levels are so high, they have to truck in all of their water.

So it's bad enough for what we're doing to those communities. But very recently, there's been some work tracing some of these toxins back to us. So the study that was done by a professor in Oregon has traced the lead that is in some of the children's jewelry that's purchased at, you know, discount stores to lead in solder, lead from electronic waste. So the circle of poison, really, is coming all the way back to us.

MARTIN: Garth, Minnesota has passed some tough laws regarding e-waste. If you can just briefly tell us, what do these laws require?

Mr. HICKLE: Well, our law is a producer-responsibility approach, so that manufacturers of video display devices - the televisions, monitors and laptops -have an obligation to collect and recycle a certain percentage by weight of what they sold the previous year.

MARTIN: So advice to the consumer who cares, that wants to make a difference -what should they do?

Ms. KYLE: So, you know, I'd say there's two things that consumers can do. One is that, actually, in our coalition, we have a pledge program that responsible recyclers have pledged to not to follow these low-road practices, not export. And so people can go on our Web site and find recyclers in their area. They can click on the map on their state. But the other thing that consumers can do is start to really ask the companies that they're buying their products from to offer take-back programs, because consumers have some power in their purchasing dollars to say I want to buy products from companies who will take them back from me when I'm done with it and recycle them responsibly.

MARTIN: Barbara Kyle is the national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. She joined us by phone from Delaware. Garth Hickle is the product stewardship team leader for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He joined us by phone from North Carolina. You can find out more at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KYLE: Thank you.

Mr. HICKLE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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