St. Louis, MO – The amount of electronic waste generated by U.S. consumers is steadily increasing.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2005, at least 26 million computers became obsolete - six million more than in 1998. By 2007, discarded TVs, computers, cell phones and other "e-waste" totaled about five billion pounds.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources environmental specialist Linda Wegrzyn told St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra that e-waste can pose a threat to both people and the environment.
Old electronic equipment contains metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury. "So if electronics equipment is improperly disposed of," says Wygrzyn, "these chemicals and heavy metals can get released into the environment."
These toxic chemicals can remain in the environment for long periods of time and bioaccumulate in our bodies and those of other animals.
Wegrzyn says that luckily, consumers in the St. Louis area have many options for recycling unwanted electronic equipment. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provides a list of area recyclers on their "e-cycle Missouri" website, at www.ecyclemo.org.
Electronics recyclers register with the DNR at one of four different levels. At level 2 and above, the recyclers agree to abide by certain best management practices, including responsible export practices for the e-waste they collect.
Starting in July of 2010, a new law will take effect in the Missouri requiring manufacturers who sell computers to provide consumers with a cost-free way of recycling their laptops, CPUs, monitors, and peripherals.
LINDA WEGRZYN: Most electronics items contain a number of different toxic constituents. A lot of electronics equipment is made from mined raw materials and that includes things like copper, lead, nickel, zinc, mercury, cadmium and other metals, and those materials are known as persistent toxics. That means they stay in the environment for long periods of time, and they can also bio-accumulate in our bodies and in the bodies of other animals. So if electronics equipment is improperly disposed of, these chemicals and heavy metals can get released into the environment.
VERONIQUE LACAPRA: And so what should people do with electronic equipment that they are finished with and want to get rid of?
WEGRZYN: Well, luckily there are several locations in the metro area where people can take electronics items to be recycled. A couple of years ago, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources started the E-cycle Missouri project, and that's a project designed to provide consumers with more information about why they should recycle their electronics and also where they can recycle their electronics. So, most all of the electronics recyclers in the area are listed on the Web page at www.ecyclemo.org.
LACAPRA: I know in some parts of the country there's also opportunities to actually have your electronic equipment reused. Is there anything like that here in St. Louis?
WEGRZYN: Yes, there are a number of private companies that will take things like cell phones so that they can be used again, and certainly reusing items is the most environmentally friendly option, so if you can upgrade equipment instead of buying new, or if you can donate to a school or a church or somebody else that can use it, that's another great option.
LACAPRA: Are stores that sell electronics in St. Louis, or in Missouri in general, in any way required to provide a recycling option for people?
WEGRZYN: Some manufacturers have taken some voluntary efforts, and then beginning in July in 2010, here in Missouri, a new law will take effect that requires manufactures who sell a computer, they'll be responsible for providing the consumer with a cost-free way of recycling that computer.
LACAPRA: I don't know if you'll be able to answer this question, but I know there's a problem sort of generally in the U.S. and in Europe as well, of electronic waste getting sent off to developing countries like China, India, and in those places maybe not being handled appropriately and exposing people to some of those toxic chemicals you were talking about earlier. Can you say where the e-waste that's being collected in St. Louis is going after that point?
WEGRZYN: Well, the electronics recyclers that have registered with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources on the E-Cycle MO website, they register at one of four different levels. And so at the level 2 and above, the electronics recyclers agree to abide by certain best management practices, and that includes things like inventory control and researching in markets and things like that, and then it also specifically includes export practices. So the recyclers that are registered at level 2 and above have agreed to responsible export practices.
LACAPRA: Okay, great, so somebody could look at the website and see what level a particular organization has registered at.