Electronic Waste Needs to Go Green

Nov 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Americans love their consumer electronics, but what happens to all the gadgets when their useful life is over? Despite being one of the largest generators of "e-waste" in the world, the U.S. has no federal policies on recycling electronic waste or handling hazardous materials from technological trash.

It's time to change that, argue four University of California scientists in an article in the Oct. 29 issue of the journal Science. The authors point out that electronic junk from the U.S. is not just a domestic problem, but a global one.

Devices such as cell phones and computers contain both valuable materials, such as gold and silver, and hazardous ones, such as lead, and other heavy metals. Efforts to recover the former in rudimentary centers in developing countries can release the latter, with devastating consequences.

"The U.S. is way behind in this area compared to Europe and even parts of Asia," said Julie Schoenung, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis and one of the authors of the article with three colleagues at UC Irvine: Oladele Ogunseitan, professor of health sciences; Jean-Daniel Saphores, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Andrew Shapiro, an associate adjunct professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

A few states, including California, have strict rules and recycling mandates. But manufacturers face a patchwork of state regulation across the country. In the European Union, by contrast, there are longstanding directives that govern electronics recycling, based on the concept of "extended producer responsibility." The manufacturer of a product is responsible for ensuring that the product is properly recycled when its useful life is over. With strong recycling mandates, a flourishing recycling industry has grown up.

China has recently passed laws to encourage electronics recycling and ensure that it is done properly, Schoenung said.

Without clear recycling options, many U.S. consumers may simply put that old phone in a drawer and forget about it. Schoenung and her colleagues recently estimated that there are as many as 1.5 million tons of electronic waste sitting in homes and garages across the U.S.

A new act now before the U.S. Senate attempts to address the problem. The Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act would fund research and demonstration projects, education efforts and research into alternatives to toxic or hazardous materials.

The bill also calls for e-waste education targeted to undergraduate engineering students, but engineers also need to learn from other disciplines such as toxicologists, ecologists and economists, Schoenung said. Educational efforts should include graduate programs, where there are greater opportunities for interdisciplinary work, she said.

"The recognition by Congress is important, but we are maybe starting a little too far back in doing research and analysis," Schoenung said. There is much that can already be learned from the European experience, she said.

Provided by UC Davis (news : web)

Explore further: Specialized species critical for reefs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Apple offers recycling for Mac trade-ins

Apr 21, 2006

Apple expanded its computer-recycling program Friday by announcing free take-back and recycling services with the purchase of a new Mac this summer.

Increasingly, states push for e-waste recycling

Oct 01, 2009

(AP) -- Frustrated by inaction in Congress, a growing number of states are trying to reduce the rising tide of junked TVs, computers and other electronics that have become one of the nation's fastest-growing ...

Recommended for you

Specialized species critical for reefs

10 hours ago

One of Australia's leading coral reef ecologists fears that reef biodiversity may not provide the level of insurance for ecosystem survival that we once thought.

Projections for climate change in Vermont

16 hours ago

Here's your northern Vermont forecast for the rest of this century: Annual precipitation will increase by between a third and half an inch per decade, while average temperatures will rise some five degrees ...

User comments : 0