EPA E-Waste Bust; Responsibility, Design and Laws To Blame

jm_ewasteTwo companies responsible for attempting to illegally export hazardous waste are facing tens of thousands of dollars of fines from the US EPA. Metro Metals Corp and Avista Recycling Inc mislabeled a shipment of nearly 1,000 computer monitors as “scrap plastic” in place of properly disposing of the hazardous waste in compliance with US law. Electronics are one of the primary products that governments worldwide are reviewing for Product Take Back Legislation or Extended Producer Responsibility to account for the waste and its appropriate disposal. Yet, the question for many designers and consumers alike is: Isn’t there a way to design electronics to minimize or remove hazardous components that lead to e-waste?

What is E-Waste

E-Waste is short for Electronic Waste, specifically from computers, televisions, radios, and other devices. This waste is typically considered hazardous due to cathode ray tubes and other electronic components that contain high levels of lead, mercury, cadmium, and even arsenic. It requires special disposal that consumers often pay to third party companies. The growing controversy is the rise in e-waste’s export to third world countries, where there is little to no knowledge of the hazardous contents inside. This has lead to many alleged sicknesses including leukemia and other forms of blood cancer. But this issue is not just found in e-waste dumping grounds, it is also being found in the manufacturing mini-cities of electronic companies in developing nations.

Story of Electronics

Annie Leonard, who created the Story of Stuff with Free Range Studios, made a video called the “Story of Electronics” that highlights the design issues and e-waste problems of the current methods of electronics production. One of the key highlights from the video is the concept of “Designed for the Dump” or the “grave” as many designers call it. This refers to products that are not designed to have any lifespan outside of its initial purpose. Computers are an excellent example. They contain a vast array of metals and toxic components, many of which are valuable. Yet to extract any of the valuable components, you must first expose yourself to the hazardous toxins. This is considered a simple design flaw, one which students overcame when developing the Arc Bloom Laptop. This computer can be disassembled completely in about a minute, with two small removable components that house the hazardous waste. This design allows the laptop to be almost 100% recyclable for the average consumer, an important step away from “Designed for the Dump”.

Role of Product Take Back Policies

It is a great relief that most of the issues associated with E-waste can be solved with a more whole systems approach to product design. Yet until these steps are taken, the World is dealing with a very large E-waste problem since technology is essentially outdated every 2 years. This is where efforts in Product Take Back Policies and Extended Producer Responsibility step-in to help deal with the waste as well as encourage more responsible design. These policies are common in Europe and a few leading Countries. Unfortunately in nations like the United States, China, Brazil, and India that contain either large populations or a high rate of consumption per capita, these policies aren’t being adequately addressed. This becomes an increasingly high concern given the rate of consumption, the rate of obsolescence of these devices, and the rapid growth of technology worldwide. Although regulatory measures, like the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that require adequate disposal of hazardous waste may act as a safeguard, an added nudge to take more complete responsibility and pride in product manufacturing and design would better alleviate the e-waste issue.

So, what is the good news other than that the majority of this waste can be addressed through whole systems design? Some states within the US are taking a pro-active stance and passing their own e-waste legislation. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition was one of the motivating forces that has helped cover 65% of the US population by some form of e-waste recycling law. But as demonstrated by this recent bust by the EPA, companies are still working around legislation. By combining both the legal ramifications for improper waste disposal as well as regulations for product design to help turn nudge into shove for more long-term and thoughtful product design.

For more information, watch the Story of Electronics by Annie Leonard, review the information at the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, or read over the European Electronics Takeback Laws.

Photo Credit: E Waste in Guiyu