Guest Column

Electronics represent challenges for society

October 31, 2014
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Electronic devices have improved our lives and, as a society, we have only just begun to realize these benefits.

However, electronics must be manufactured and used responsibly. Electronics represents the fastest-growing environmental challenge our society faces because of the harmful chemicals they contain.

These chemicals, mainly lead and mercury, should never be placed in a landfill or incinerated. To ensure safety, the recycling of electronic devices should be done only by licensed and certified (E-Stewards or R2) electronic recyclers. Unfortunately, current Michigan laws relating to electronics fall short in enforcing measures that would keep our local environment cleaner and safer.

Comprenew, a best-practice nonprofit organization and the only E-Stewards and R2 certified electronic recycler headquartered in Michigan, has provided free recycling of all electronic devices for over seven years. It serves a broad spectrum of customers and pays municipalities and corporations for their higher value material and IT devices.

Before flat-screen technology was developed, we all used large and heavy cathode ray tube TVs and computer displays. The older style CRT devices are a significant environmental concern because each unit contains approximately 5 to 10 pounds of lead. Although generally safe when intact, broken CRTs release lead into the environment. Improper handling of lead contributes to cancer, kidney failure, learning disabilities, intellectual disability and behavioral problems. Lead is highly portable and can be transferred from person to person on clothing as well as through water and air.

Comprenew estimates that nationwide, CRTs will continue to represent the majority of the overall electronic waste stream for the next three years or more. Currently, 20 U.S. states have made it illegal to dump CRTs in landfills; 25 states have required that manufacturers financially support certified and approved electronic recyclers by mandating that specific recycling targets (generally tied to the manufacturer’s sales within the state) are met. This system has come to be known as the “take-back” program, making it possible for citizens to recycle their used electronics for little to no cost.

Michigan has taken a different approach. Instead of a landfill ban and a requirement that manufacturers pay for the recycling of electronics, Michigan has required four things of manufacturers:

1. Register with the Department of Environmental Quality.

2. Have an electronic recycling (take-back) program free and convenient for households and small businesses (less than 10 employees).

3. Maintain a website and otherwise inform consumers how to recycle TVs and computers.

4. Submit annual information about the take-back program (number of units collected, names of collection or recycling agencies involved).

Up until recently, manufacturers have responded to Michigan’s take-back law by working with approved and certified recyclers and paying them for the residential poundage they collect. This practice allowed Comprenew and other recyclers across the state to collect and process CRTs without charging the customer.

Now, due to the lack of specificity in the Michigan law relative to other states, manufacturers seem to have uniformly decided to reduce the amount of recycling dollars spent in Michigan relating to the products they sell in Michigan. This means citizens, conservation districts and municipalities of Michigan will have to pay a fee to ensure their used CRT devices do not harm the environment.

The lack of specificity in Michigan take-back law becomes an environmental disaster because Michigan does not ban electronics from landfills. Comprenew is being told by customers and municipalities that many citizens will choose to dump their old CRTs in the garbage or elsewhere. Unfortunately, we agree with this assessment. Instead of paying $8 to $50 to properly recycle a CRT, many will dump it somewhere, and some of the devices will be cracked open by scavengers for the small amount of metal inside.

Once lead and other harmful chemicals are present in a landfill or water supply, the damage is done. Every single living thing, human, animal, and plant will be affected sooner or later.

What can be done?

First, citizens need to raise their voices. Second, Michigan needs a landfill ban on electronics. Third, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality must work with the state legislature to pass strong and clear take-back legislation that at least puts Michigan on par with surrounding states.

Clearly, electronics will continue to touch our lives positively. But manufacturers are not designing or manufacturing electronic devices to be earth- or people-friendly after the useful life of the device. The best way to encourage manufacturers to do more is to make them a part of the recycling solution.

At the end of the day, this issue is about what kind of environment and life we want here in Michigan.

Solving this issue means we need to ban electronics from landfills and require that manufacturers who sell in Michigan take care of Michigan — just as they must do in other states.

Scott Vander Kooy is president of Comprenew.

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