Green Tip: Electronics Recycling

In the State of Washington, beginning January 1, 2009 recycling many electronics can be done for free. The program applies to televisions, computers, computer monitors and portable/laptop computers. Peripherals like keyboards, mice and printers are not covered under this program, but many places already take at least some of them for free. The Department of Ecology has more information about the new program. That site also has information about reusing electronics, which is an excellent way to reduce the impact by keeping them out of the waste stream.

But how can you tell what will happen to your equipment once you turn it in? The idea of recycling them properly is to keep the toxic materials they contain out of the environment. Among other things they contain lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, and polyvinyl chlorides, plus lesser amounts of other metals and chemicals. To be safe the parts need to be broken down in an enclosed, controlled facility with safety equipment.

Several years ago there was an uproar when people realized that many of the electronics they turned in for recycling were being sent to Asia, where they’d often end up on a stream bank in a rural area. People would break them up with hammers and pliers, and a lot of the toxics would end up on the ground or in the stream. And in the people.

So rules were made [at least in some places] that were intended to prevent electronics from being exported to locations like that. Many countries also prohibited the import of those materials. And recycling companies in the US vowed to do it right and protect the environment.

The problem is that until recently nobody was confirming what was being done, at least nobody independent. Now the Basal Action Network is trying to confirm the statements by various recyclers, but it’s not an easy thing to do. And while most companies are probably being honest, considering the risk and the cost to all of us, it would be nice to know for sure.

60 minutes recently did a story where they tracked some containers leaving a “green” recycler and found they were full of computer monitors going to China. They tracked one all the way to the destination, where women sitting at coal fires would heat circuit boards until the solder got soft enough to let them pull out the chips. They’d pour the melted solder off the boards. And breath the fumes. In different places around town huge piles of electronic scraps were smoldering as they burned and melted. Ash from these piles was being dumped in the stream, and children played in it. Studies have shown that the town has the highest levels of cancer causing dioxins in the world. The local water is so polluted that drinking water is trucked in. But what about anyone [and anything] downstream?

You can read the 60 minutes news article at CBS. The video of the show is also available at CBS.

The good news is that the Basal Action Network and a number of major e-cyclers have joined together to certify e-cycling companies. The list of certified companies is short but growing. BAN’s November 10, 2008 news release E-Stewards: Activists and industry join to certify responsible electronics recyclers has more information. They also have links to other reports about e-cycling problems. They have set up a web site where you can get more information, including a list of known reliable recyclers. Figuring out if the place you take your equipment is working with a responsible recycler still isn’t easy, but it’s getting better.

One option is to avoid the middle man and go straight to a certified recycler. Three that are reasonably close to Burien are Total Reclaim in south Seattle, Re-PC in Tukwila and south Seattle, and Cascade Assets in Kent. I just took a bunch of stuff down to Total Reclaim and Re-PC in south Seattle. Total Reclaim doesn’t do much sorting, they just break things down for recycling. If you have things that are re-usable, take them to Re-PC. They’ll sort them, resell what they can and take the rest down to Total Reclaim for recycling. Be sure to check the BAN list for approved recyclers, more will be added as soon as they can.