Texas Campaign for Environment is celebrating a major victory as a bill to spur recycling for obsolete televisions has been passed by the Texas Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Perry. However, many Texas residents still have no access to convenient recycling options. Best Buy has partnered with some electronics manufacturers to offer convenient recycling for many electronics products, including computers and TVs. Now we're urging the retail giant Walmart to provide recycling programs in Texas that will make it as easy to recycle old e-waste as it is to buy new electronics.
electronic waste: an environmental crisis
A typical TV or computer monitor contains at least four to eight pounds of lead, which harms virtually all systems in the human body.1 Flat panel LCD displays contain mercury, known to disrupt the central nervous system, damage brain development, impair chromosomal function and cause birth defects.2 Most electronics also contain brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which have demonstrated harmful developmental effects in human brain cells and are considered a possible human carcinogen.3 These toxic flame retardants have been detected in mother’s milk samples from all women tested in the U.S.4
The U.S. EPA estimates 82% of our e-waste ends up in domestic landfills or incinerators.5 Consumer electronics already make up an estimated 40% of the lead and 70% of heavy metals in landfills,6 potentially contaminating our municipal water supplies. Burning the plastics releases carcinogenic dioxin into the air we breathe.
The remaining 18% of U.S. e-waste is documented as “recycled.” Alarmingly, an estimated 50-80% of this purportedly recycled e-waste is actually exported to unscrupulous “sham recyclers” in developing countries or to U.S. prisons.7 Prison labor is a taxpayer-subsidized practice that exposes prisoners, prison guards, staff and their families to dangerous levels of toxins. Export and prison labor hurt our economy because responsible, free-market recyclers face unfair competition that undercuts their business and costs jobs.
In developing nations, exported e-waste is dumped, burned, and processed under very crude conditions that result in toxic exposure to workers and communities. In countries like Ghana, Nigeria, China, India, Pakistan and Vietnam, recycling often means burning the plastics away from the metals, releasing multiple toxins into the global atmosphere. In one Chinese e-waste scrap center, more than 80% of the children have lead poisoning.8
Exported e-scrap can also create public health threats here at home; for instance, e-waste exported to China appears to be a source of the lead used to make children’s jewelry, which is then imported back to the U.S.9 A recent report also indicates high levels of cadmium, another toxic metal found in electronics, in low-cost children’s jewelry made in China.10 National media sources such as 60 Minutes, National Geographic, Frontline and TIME Magazine have exposed the fate of our toxic e-waste when shipped to dirty scrap operations overseas. A 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office documented dozens of sham recyclers that participate in this shameful practice.11 The report concludes that very few regulations exist to control this practice—and the few already in place are not well-enforced.
1. U.S. EPA: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/lead.html.
2. U.S. EPA: http://www.epa.gov/mercury/effects.htm.
3. “Brain Drain? PBDEs Alter Development of Human Brain Cells.” April 2010. Environ Health Perspect 118:a173-a173. doi:10.1289/ehp.118-a173a
4. “Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in U.S. Mothers’ Milk,” Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2003.
5. U.S. EPA: Electronics Management in the United States: Approach 1, July 2008.
6. “Computers, E-waste and Product Stewardship: Is California Ready for the Challenge?” Report for U.S. EPA, 2001.
7. Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia, Basel Action Network, 2002.
8. “Firms Starting to Stem Tide of Toxic Tech Junk,” Austin American Statesman, March 5, 2007.
9. “Lead Toxins Take a Global Round Trip,” Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2007.
10. What Goes Around Comes Around: High Levels of Cadmium in Low Cost Jewelry, report by Dr. Martin Streicher-Porte, Alexandra Buckenmayer and Dr. Susanne Pfenninger (University of California-Berkeley, 15 January 2010).
11. U.S. GAO, “Electronic Waste: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation,” August 2008.
the long-term solution: producer takeback recycling
- Producer takeback recycling means there is a built-in incentive to make electronics that are more recyclable, last longer, and use less toxic material. Increasing efficiency is not only profitable, it is ecologically beneficial and labor intensive - recycling provides more jobs than landfilling or incinerating.
- Consumers pay 1-3% more for the products, but pay nothing for recycling. Countries that have adopted this policy are experiencing recycling rates of 50-80%*, whereas current recycling programs in the U.S. are yielding less than 1% of annual sales.**
- Given that taxpayer-funded local solid waste programs are already overburdened and under funded, why should taxpayers be asked to shoulder the additional burden of e-waste management? Dozens of local governments in Texas has gone on record in support of producer takeback legislation.
- Convincing the Electronics Companies that Corporate Responsibility Pays. Brand name giants respond to market demand, public pressure, and legislation. TCE generated thousands of letters to Dell, Apple, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba and HP, and these companies now embrace producer takeback recycling. They have come to see this as an opportunity to recover resources and increase profit margins.
*Industry Collection of Electronics More Efficient, Report Says. Recycling Policy News. July 29, 2002.
**Electronics Product Recovery and Baseline Report. National Safety Council. 1999
poison PCs and toxics TVs: the costs of e-Waste in Texas
Texas Campaign for the Environment issued a 35-page national report with a Texas supplement, called Poison PCs and Toxic TVs - E-waste tsunami to roll across US: Are we prepared? The major findings are:
- Texas taxpayers will foot $606 million tax bill from computer manufacturers over ten years if companies don't take back obsolete products. TCE's analysis provides estimates for the taxpayer or ratepayer burden for each major metropolitan area of the state.
- More than 2 million tons of toxins are headed to Texas landfills and incinerators and state's record on electronic waste found lacking.
A number of states ban toxic electronic waste from their landfills. Texas does not. Federal hazardous waste rules prohibit institutions that generate large quantities of e-waste (220 pounds per month or more) from landfilling or incinerating their toxic e-waste. Unfortunately, this is not well enforced.
Producer TakeBack Recycling shifts the financial responsibility for electronics recycling from local governments to the manufacturers. Due in part to the cost savings this represents, over 40 cities and counties throughout Texas have publicly endorsed Producer TakeBack policies for e-waste recycling. Most have passed local resolutions in favor of state legislation, and several have gone on record in support of specific bills during the past two legislative sessions. The following local governments support Producer TakeBack Recycling:
Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Travis, Hays, Callahan, Coleman, Brown, San Saba, Lampasas, Menard, Burnet, Washington, Waller, Austin, Lavaca, Goliad, Gonzales, Caldwell, Fayette, Matagorda, Refugio, Aransas, Wharton, Bandera, Val Verde, Culberson, Hudspeth, Fort Bend*
Georgetown, Kyle, Plano, Highland Village, Rowlett, San Marcos, Avery, Lakeway, Austin, Round Rock, Sherman, Richardson, Corpus Christi*, Houston*, Dallas**
*(Record of support during 2009 legislative session)
**(Record of support during 2007 legislative session)
chemicals in electronics are in our bodies
Scientists are finding higher and higher levels of flame retardants used in electronics and other products in the bodies of Americans and in fish in our lakes and bays - and even in polar bears.
Testing on mothers' milk and umbilical cords show the levels of these flame retardants ten to a hundred times higher than found in Europeans - and every sample of mothers' milk found detectible levels. Another study tested mainly Texas mothers milk samples with similar results. Women should continue breastfeeding for the wide variety of health benefits. But we can safely assume that all Americans have this substance in the fatty tissues of our bodies - this is not limited to nursing moms.
Working with other Electronics TakeBack Coalition activists, tests of the dust on computer monitors were taken and a report released in 2004 documented the presence of these chemicals in dust from universities, schools and legislative offices. Similar studies of household dust has also detected these chemicals.
In addition to exposure through inhaling dust, other exposures roots include inhalation of the chemicals as they off-gas from products and through the food chain. A study of foods containing animal from the shelves of Dallas supermarkets found much higher levels of these chemicals than similar studies in other countries.
These chemicals - brominated flame retardants or BFRs - are a family of chemicals, similar to now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, which are widely used as fire retardants in consumer products. In animal studies of BFRs, there are similar impacts to PCBs. Testing of animals has shown the following impacts:
- reproductive disorders
- endocrine and hormone problems
- nervous system disorders
Electronics producers are beginning to respond to direct pressure and legislative efforts to rid their products of these chemicals. After two mothers' milk studies were released in 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency negotiated a phase-out of two kinds of these chemicals (Octa-BDE and Penta-BDE). But the federal government has not taken protective action on the main chemical of concern used in electronics, deca-BDE.
Thanks to pressure from the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, many producers are eliminating the use of all BFRs. Electronics companies that have set deadlines to phase out BFRs include Apple, Acer, Dell, Lenovo, LGE, Nokia, Samsung, Sony-Ericsson, Sony, and Toshiba.