Monday, February 6, 2012

Electronic Waste

People, Planet, Profit – the Triple Bottom Line

Behind the Goodwill Store at 3010 Williams Drive, Matt is taking donations.  He takes my old computer and stacks it on top of other discarded computers in a box 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall.  Matt says the Georgetown location fills up three of those boxes every day.

In almost every household in America is a Closet of Digital Purgatory, the place where unwanted computers, keyboards, monitors, and mice languish in neglect.  These things were expensive, and they still work, so we hesitate to discard them.  But it’s time for a new upgrade and the closet is full, so something has to go.

Globally, 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are discarded every year.  A typical computer monitor contains 4-8 pounds of lead; a flat panel monitor contains mercury.  Electronic waste can also contain other toxic substances such as cadmium, hexavalent chromium, beryllium, phthalates, and polybrominated fire retardants.  Fifteen states have banned landfill disposal of electronic waste.  (Texas is not yet one of them.)  Much e-waste is exported to places like Guiyu, China, which by 2006 had already imported 1.5 million tons for reprocessing, in violation of even Chinese regulations.  Mountains of e-waste also exist in Viet Nam, Ghana, India, and other less developed countries where desperately poor people are willing to melt circuit boards over open flames, exposing themselves and their children to poisonous lead fumes, and then throwing the leftover toxics into the water supply.

Since 2008, by law every computer manufacturer that wants to sell computers in Texas must provide free and convenient recycling for those computers once they are no longer useful.  Dell Computers teamed up with Goodwill Industries of Central Texas back in 2004, well before the law was passed, to keep old computers out of our landfills.  This collaboration is called Dell Reconnect.

All computers collected at any area Goodwill are sent to the Goodwill Computer Works facility at 1015 Norwood Park in north Austin.  Jeff Kendall, manager of the Computer Works program, says they receive 250 tons of equipment every month.  Step one is to sort out the best pieces for resale, which is always the preferred destination.  A skilled technician cleans away the dust and erases the hard drive to Department of Defense standards, so that not even an expert hacker can ever again access any of the previous owners’ photo albums or online purchases.  The technician upgrades the memory, installs a licensed Microsoft operating system, and some free office and antivirus software.  These refurbished computers sell for as low as $80 in the adjacent store with a 90 day warranty.  Flat screen monitors go for $30.  Kendall says they sell about five computers a day.  He would like to sell more because the proceeds help support Goodwill’s community service programs for the disabled and the unemployed.

Only about 20% of donated computers are resold.  The rest are dismantled for recycling, often by enthusiastic volunteers.  Kendall explains that it takes about 5 minutes to instruct a Boy Scout troop of eager 10 year olds to deconstruct a computer with a screwdriver.  Then stand back.  Cases go in one bin, circuit boards in another, copper wire in a third.  All hard drives are immediately turned over to a trained technician in a secure area where they are wiped clean or destroyed before leaving the facility.

After the unwanted computers are dismantled, Dell Computers is responsible for recycling the components.  The actual fate of the recycled materials is in the hands of Dell’s “Environmental Partners.”   Dell maintains a very strict, and public, Environmental Partner Performance Standard for electronics disposition, which mandates environmentally responsible recovery of heavy metals and prohibits dumping of toxic materials in developing countries.  Child and prison labor are also prohibited.  Jeff Kendall could not tell me who Dell’s Environmental Partners are because their identity is protected by a non-disclosure agreement.

Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and Vice Chair for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, was instrumental in the passage of the law requiring computer companies to provide recycling to their customers.  She believes that Dell is the most environmentally responsible of the computer manufacturers, but she has been trying unsuccessfully since 2004 to find out the identity of the Environmental Partners.  In spite of the secrecy surrounding the Environmental Partners, in July 2011 Michael Dell and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the EPA, cosigned a document promoting the safe management of used electronics using methods that protect both workers and the environment.

Waste Management’s Hutto Recycling Center also collects discarded computers for the Reconnect program.  Texas Disposal Systems prefers that customers take their discarded computers directly to Goodwill collection stations.

Jeff Kendall:  Manager of ComputerWorks

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