E-waste: The Fastest Growing Waste In the Country

By: Zoe Brawner

College student Colson Barnes strolled down the street walking and texting. The phone fell from her hand when a stranger bumped into her. Barnes picked it up and hoped it survived. It didn’t.  Like many other students who have broken their electronics, Barnes asked herself what do I do now?

Experts say most people would throw it away, replace the cell phone and not think twice about it. This is not unheard of when electronic products near the end of their “useful life.” Kristine Kobylus, Athens Clarke County’s Solid Waste Department Program Education Specialist, thinks throwing away electronics when they die has become a part of our culture. Specialists like Kobylus along with other Recycling activists in the Athens area are determined to educate the public and change how e-waste is recycled.

Hundreds of pages could be written about E-waste. However, experts say these are three vital things the public should know: 1. E-waste is the fastest growing waste in the United States.  2. Throwing away electronics is an improper disposal method of e-waste. 3. Recycling e-waste is easy. Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xm3k6JQ_8Ro&feature=youtu.be

Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the country. As technology advances and the time span of an electronics “useful life” continues to diminish, many find their electronic devices become obsolete. E-Cycling Central confirmed today televisions are used on average for less than two years while computers it’s three. According to dosomething.org, the country’s largest nonprofit for young people and social change, the nation now dumps between 300 and 400 million electronic items per year but less than 20 percent of that e-waste is recycled. The E-Stewards Initiative estimates as little as 11-14 percent of e-waste is recycled in the United States and an estimated 70-80 percent of the e-waste given to recycle centers is exported to less developed countries.

Dumping electronic devices in landfills causes a number of problems according to Prospect Journal of International Affairs. E-waste is different than other waste because it is hazardous according to the Journal: It contains mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants. When e-waste is burned at low temperatures these chemicals create the most toxic substances known to mankind. Therefore, if the waste stream isn’t managed in the proper way, these toxic materials in e-waste can cause many health problems which include endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders, cancer, and many others. Toxic chemicals in electronics do not break down over time they accumulate in the biosphere when dumped in landfills. These toxins present risks to communities, the global ecosystem and recycling workers.

Clarke County’s Household Hazardous Waste Specialist Christopher Griffin says Athens Clarke County Recycling Division Center has diverted 322.25 tons of e-waste from the landfills. That means in the last six years Clarke County has recycled 46 tons on average which is 2-3 percent of e-waste when compared to the total amount of recycled materials. Although this percentage is small when compared to the total waste recycled, it represents an increase in growth of customers who are involved with ACC’s recycling programs.

“It is significant as far as our customers are concerned. The fact that they are making the effort to recycle e-waste is huge because these items are not always easy to recycle. Six years ago that 2-3 percent was just going into the landfills.”

Athens Clarke County Recycling Division has a drop-off bin where anyone can drop off electronics in their fullest form to be recycled. They serve as the collectors of e-waste and store all of the materials in a trailer on site. The e-waste is transported to KP Surplus where the electronics are shredded, crushed, and broken down into smaller components. These materials are then stored in big Gaylord recycling boxes and taken for further processing at an R2 recycler. This is where they extract all of the toxic chemicals. Kristine Kobylus, says that every municipality that collects e-waste has a choice of where they want their processor to be. Kobylus touched on the ethical issues of exporting e-waste to third world countries and expressed how fortunate Athens Clarke County Recycling Division is to have a local partner and R2 recycler in the United States.  Griffin elaborated on how important it is to know who they use as a manufacturer to process the e-waste is doing the right thing with the material.

“I think that was one of the problems that we had with the company we used before, Creative Recycling. Where essentially because they were profit driven that stuff was going where it wasn’t supposed to go so that’s why we are now involved with KP’s services plus they are local so that made a huge impact on the level of customer service we get.”

Recycling electronics today is crucial to keep e-waste from accumulating in the landfills.  Griffin and Kobylus plan to attack this problem by educating the public that there is an alternative to throwing electronics away.  By 2020, the mayor of commission expects ACC to have an 80 percent diversion rate. In order to achieve this, ACC has to come up with new programs to collect items on the curb and reduce the amount of e-waste at the recycling division center. In the next seven years ACC plans to have a regular collection on a regular basis for e-waste. CHaRM, which stands for Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, is a program in the works to provide improvements and equipment. CHaRM’s mission is to establish a recycling center for Athens-Clarke County that can accept designated recycling materials and household hazardous materials that cannot be accepted through other disposal methods, and properly reuse and/or dispose of such materials. In the meantime the ACC Recycling Facility, Best Buy, Target, ReConnect, Sony, FREE IT Athens, and Hewlett-Packard all offer free electronic recycling services.

With this knowledge, Colson Barnes says she will never throw away her cell phone again.

“I had no idea how much damage I could prevent just by taking the time to  recycle my phone instead of throwing it away. If I had this knowledge prior to  breaking my phone I would have recycled it the correct way.”

In the future, Barnes plans to drive to the Athens Clarke County Recycling Division Center. Barnes will drop her next broken phone off in the electronics-recycling bin and looks forward to making a positive impact on the environment.

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