LIVING GREEN for Sept. 27, 2012

For Weekly SurgeSeptember 25, 2012 

Are your gadgets becoming e-waste?

How many electronics do you have at home? The average U.S. household owns about 24 electronics and spends more than $1,100 a year on these products, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Electronics include televisions, cell phones, computers, DVD players, MP3 players, microwaves, small appliances, and even clock radios. The new iPhone 5 has arrived, even though most locals can’t seem to get their hands on them, and more televisions are switching to LED displays and every day more than 300,000 smartphones are sold.

We are all a little tech crazy and tech dependent. What would most of us do with our smartphone or our Internet?

Regardless, consumers continue to buy the newest and fastest electronic stuff like it’s going out of style...wait, because it is. This is a concept called, "designed for the dump," as defined by a video called “ The Story of Stuff.” Electronics become obsolete so quickly that rather than repair or update what you own, it's cheaper to buy it new and toss the old - call it e-waste. By 2007, more than 40 million computers became obsolete, no one knew really what to do with these and then stockpiling became an issue. “ The Story of Stuff” gives perspective to this issue of waste and electronics. I must admit that we are still the proud owners of iPod minis, which Apple no longer makes, but they still work and eventually could be sold to the Smithsonian.

So with this issue of electronic waste came the process of electronic recycling. Some manufacturers offered trade-in opportunities to consumers. Some municipalities host e-waste recycling collection events for businesses, schools, and residents.

But, do you really know what happens to some of the e-waste that you think was recycled?

Unfortunately, the problem with e-waste recycling is that there is always that chance that it doesn't get recycled. It has been known to be easier and more profitable to export e-waste to less developed countries, such as Ghana, India and China. The e-waste gets dumped into communities, where workers use primitive techniques to extract valuable metals. The techniques are called cooking circuit boards and acid burning. The rest of the electronic item, which includes glass and plastic and toxins, is simply burned in the backyard. Companies that claim to "recycle" simply shove everything into a shipping container and send it off to cheap labor markets. Those companies weren't willing to invest into high-tech equipment of their own to truly recycle properly. An article from USA Today in 2002 first describes the real result from e-waste recycling and it references a report from 2002 by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, " Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia." The report says some in the industry estimate that as much as 50 to 80 percent of U.S. electronic waste that is collected in the name of recycling actually gets shipped out of the country. It is estimated that 160-210 million pounds of e-waste is exported every year, which is enough to fill 4,500 shipping containers.

Human and environmental health is at risk with such inhumane and disrespectful activities. According to a study conducted by universities in Hong Kong, about 80 percent of the children in Guiyu, China already have high levels of lead present in their blood stream. E-waste, if not handled properly, causes severe pollution of water, soil and air. These dangerous exports contribute a global threat to environmental and human health problems. Exporting used electronics is not widely understood or examined by the general public, who commonly believe they are recycling properly.

So what can you do? Where do you start? The first is be aware of this topic and be responsible for where you recycle. Due-diligence is key to ensure that downstream facilities and operations use proper and environmentally-secure practices.

If you are planning to purchase new electronics, ask yourself these questions:

Do I really need this now?

Do I really want to spend money on this?

Can I update or repair what I have?

If I do need it, is there a way to recycle the old electronic item it is replacing, properly and without exporting?

If it is recycled, where does it go after collection?

The Basel Action Network created an e-Stewards Program to certify companies that recycle electronics. Of course, the most vital criteria for this program is that the company cannot export any of the e-waste it accepts to recycle. To view the list of certified e-waste recyclers that will not export, visit the Basel Action Network e-Stewards Program Web site at http://e-stewards.org.

The South Carolina state law of e-waste recycling, which went into effect on July 1, 2011, provides a window of opportunity for the obsolete electronics to be removed from storage and recycled properly (without exporting) through a state contracted company called  Creative Recycling Systems, Inc. of Florida. The  Horry County Solid Waste Authority (SWA) allows residents to recycle their computers and televisions free of charge at any of the recycling centers in the county. However, businesses that wish to recycle other electronics must either pay a tipping fee to the SWA or contact Creative Recycling Systems directly. For questions, contact the SWA at 347-1651.

On Oct. 6, Goodwill Industries of Lower South Carolina in partnership with Dell will host an E-Waste Donation Drive at the North Myrtle Beach store location at 3336 U.S. 17 South from 10a.m.-2 p.m. You can call 663-1633 for more information.

Jennifer Sellers is the sustainability coordinator at Coastal Carolina University and offers her eco-views at her blog, mygreenglasses.com. Contact her at jen@mygreenglasses.com.

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