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The Green Room: The 3-R Heirarchy Of E-Waste: Reduce, Reuse And Recycle

The average American household has twenty-four electronic devices—most are destined for the dump when we’re done with them.  We are upgrading at ever-increasing rates, and challenges to getting our discards recycled safely are mounting.  In this installment of 89.1 WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at what we can do to lessen the environmental impact of our love of the “latest and greatest” in electronics.

David Fair Introduction: It’s spring cleaning time, and ewaste might be amongst the clutter in your basement! Michigan is not one of the 20 states that bans e-waste from landfills.  So, currently most devices are dumped, and the materials wasted.  For the minority that ARE recycled, their contents can be harmful, if not handled correctly.   In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores the escalating electronics buy-and-scrap cycle.

Dr. Gillian Miller:  We’ll do XRF to do heavy metals.  You can see the readout.  We get somewhat high in cadmium, chromium on the circuit board, manganese, copper…

Barbara Lucas (BL):  I’m on the University of Michigan campus where Dr. Gillian Miller of the Ecology Center is testing an e-tablet for toxic substances with an impressive-looking hand-held laser device. 

Miller:  There are two areas of concern:  one is what is inside the tablet, which will eventually be trashed—or potentially recycled, and the recycling can also cause hazardous metals to end up in other products—but then the outsides of the tablets can contain a lot of flame retardants sometimes.


BL:  I spoke with Dr. Rick Nietzel, UM researcher who’s studying one the most notorious e-waste dumps in the world: in Agbogbloshie, Ghana.  He tells me about an international treaty that prohibits the transportation of hazardous waste across international borders.

Dr. Rick Nietzel:  …but we’ve figured out a way around that, which is basically, we donate vast amounts of these electronics to countries like Ghana and China, and the reality is that maybe a third to a half of the things we donate are so functionally obsolete that they can't be repaired.  So we are essentially shipping waste in electronic format and people have figured out a way to take these electronics apart and get at the precious metals inside.

BL:  He shows me video footage of his visit.  In a wasteland of electronic debris, people are hacking away with hammers, chisels and machetes to get at the wiring.

Nietzel:  So the most effective and efficient way they’ve found to get this copper liberated from the wire coating is to burn it.   And the way they create heat to melt off this rubber and plastic is by burning car tires.

BL:  The sky in the footage is black with dense smoke, and he says the adjacent river is horribly polluted.  Would landfilling be better?  That would spell the end to the metals inside.  Because mining new metal can cause pollution and habitat destruction, recycling “old” vs. mining “new” makes sense, if done responsibly.   

BL: Manager Becky Andrews shows me around the Recycle Ann Arbor Drop-off Station.

Becky Andrews:  This is our e-waste area.  CPUs, CRT TVs, computer monitors, flat screens, laptops, printers, scanners, fax machines.  So we take just about everything.  Sorting is minimal.

BL:  Like most take-back facilities: broken or still usable, it’s all headed for breakdown and reprocessing into new uses.   Workers are filling a semi-trailer, which will go to a recycler in Canton, Michigan.

Andrews:  Vintage Tech is a vendor we use because they are “E-Steward” certified and “R-2” certified, and meet the highest environmental quality standards.  

BL:  She says she has toured their operation in Canton.

Andrews:  So we are very, very confident in their processes on their site.

BL:  She likes the way Vintage Tech provides a certificate of destruction for the hard drives, so she can guarantee customers their private information is extinguished. 

BL: Michigan’s 2008 “Take-back” law requires manufacturers of TVs and computers to provide consumers with multiple options for recycling.  But if not done right, recycling can be hazardous. For instance… 

Steve Noble: It's a little-known fact that the LCDs—you know, the flat panel type televisions—those have a fluorescent tube in them that contain mercury. They don't educate us about that when we buy them.

BL:  That’s Steve Noble, of the Department of Environmental Quality.  He says state law also requires all e-waste recyclers to be registered by the state—a list of which is available on the Michigan.gov Take-back site—to ensure the latest, safest practices to deal with the mounting pile of discards.

Noble:  And it’s going to get worse, because a lot of the tablets we are now using and enjoying are not really meant to be recycled. There is a very popular brand name that just generally cannot be taken apart and fixed. 

BL:  Constantly advancing technology has brought many improvements to our lives, but the waste it creates is challenging.  Back at the Drop-off Station…

Andrews:  You can upgrade your phone—depending on the plan you’ve got—every eight months you can switch your phone out, so that’s a big turnover.  Just like when VHS video moved to DVD players, there was a spell where it was those constantly coming in.  We don’t get so many of those anymore—now it’s the TVs. 

BL:  She says not every material is recyclable, and some of it is hazardous, such as the lead in Cathode Ray Tube TVs. 

Andrews:  It used to be the leaded glass from those used to get recycled into the new CRT TV’s, but now no one is buying new CRT TVs, everyone buys flat screens.

BL:  Another consideration is energy use.  Apple’s analysis of their products’ responsibility for greenhouse gases shows far more is produced during manufacture, than is used to power the device after purchase.  Recycling and remanufacture also takes energy.  What can we do to make the most of the embodied energy in our electronics?

BL:  I’m at Apples to Oranges, an electronics repair service in Nickels Arcade in Ann Arbor.  It’s co-owned by Raul Perdomo and Claire Harrison, who describe numerous ways to get more life out of electronics.

Raul Perdomo:  With regular maintenance and upkeep you can keep a computer even up to eight years and they will still be effective.  We are using computers here that are 10 years old.  They work fine for us because…

Claire Harrison: …we maintain them!

BL:  But what about the incompatibility that arises between devices and software when technology changes? They tell me there are operating systems that can be installed that will prevent your devices from becoming obsolete.

Perdomo:  You can get a lot more life, especially if you are just trying to go to Facebook and type a paper.

Harrison:  There’s a lot more usability there.

BL:  They advise safe practices:  avoid suspicious downloads, keep your coffee at a different level.  If you do have a disaster, they say most are fixed far cheaper than buying new.  Even a liquid spill—IF you act fast:  turn it off immediately and bring it in for battery removal and cleaning.

Harrison:  The vast majority of the time—about 90% of the time—we are able to just clean them out and get them going again without even replacing any parts.

BL:  Brave do-it-yourselfer’s can replace parts like batteries and screens with online kits that come complete with tools and instructions.  Another option is Fix-it Friday, at Makerspace in southwest Ann Arbor.  Ambient sound of Makerspace.  I chat with Dan Byrne while a Makerspace volunteer tries to fix his old stereo.  Why bother?

Dan Byrne:  The only problem is the drawer’s stuck, electronically it works fine.  If you can fix it, I’m reluctant to buy new, because sometimes the old stuff works better.

BL:  And if you can’t use it anymore, Washtenaw County’s online Trash to Treasure Guide shows four local non-profits that can use your working electronics, and the National Cristina Foundation, which lists another eleven within driving distance.

BL: Although proper recycling is crucial, according to Becky Andrews of Recycle Ann Arbor, it’s not the first option to consider. 

Andrews:  We’d like people to actually think first about the whole waste that they produce, you know, and cut that down first.

BL: Barbara Lucas, 89.1 WEMU News


E-waste processing in Agbogbloshie: Frontline’s “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground”

EPA statistics on e-waste

Michigan’s Electronic Waste Take-Back Program

Electronics repair kits:  www.ifixit.com

Fix-it Fridays at Maker-Works:  www.Maker-Works.com

Washtenaw County’s Trash to Treasure Guide

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.