PORTLAND - Did you get a new computer or television last year? Where is the old one going? Millions of aging televisions and obsolete computers gather cobwebs in basements and attics. Tons more sit in landfills.
Each of those defunct TV sets or computer screens contains a serious problem - a cathode ray tube (CRT) that contains four to eight pounds of lead, plus cadmium, mercury, toxic solvents and chemicals. When old sets and outdated computers are sent to the landfill, they are crushed, creating potential to release heavy metals and other toxic chemicals into the environment.
Oregon lags behind other states, including Massachusetts and California - and some local governments in Washington - in recycling and safely disposing of electronic waste.
But a few local groups, including the Oregon State University Extension Service Master Recycler Program, are trying to do something to help solve the ever-increasing problem by educating citizens to reduce, reuse and recycle electronic waste before it ends up in the landfill.
"Consumer electronics are the second largest source of lead in municipal waste, after car batteries," explained Megan Cogswell, waste reduction coordinator of OSU Extension's Master Recycler Program in the Portland Metro area.
"People today are looking for places to recycle e-waste and are looking to government to provide a solution," she said. "Recyclers, wary that regulations will change and that they will be responsible for large volumes of hazardous waste, are hesitant to collect e-waste. Unless recycling facilities can develop a source of income by recycling the waste, it is a losing proposition for them."
When concerned citizens try to recycle their electronics, some of their electronics may end up being shipped in bulk to Asia where there are few environmental laws to prevent toxic pollution. With disregard for international law, electronic waste is often dumped in huge open piles and burned, with heavy metals and toxins entering the soil, water and air.
Costs fall on solid waste ratepayers and tax payers, instead of those that make, buy and use the products, explained Cogswell.
"Typically, local municipalities bear the burden of managing unwanted waste - local landfills and governments," she said.
Many think that the only way to get a grip on minimizing hazardous electronic waste is to take the onus off government and taxpayers to manage unwanted products.
"All parties who make, buy and use electronic equipment need to take responsibility for minimizing the environmental impacts of those products," said Cogswell. There is an international movement toward producer-based responsibility for a product at all stages of its life, including recycling, Cogswell said. It is termed "electronic product stewardship," or EPS.
Economic incentives are in place for electronics manufacturers and users to recycle lost resources in Taiwan, Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan. For instance, a country might require televisions and computers to be made of easily recyclable components.
With the transition to high definition television, plenty more old television sets are going to end up in the waste stream soon, said Cogswell, And with the average lifespan of a computer of only two to three years, "the time is now for change, as the problem continues to grow," she said.
"More information is coming to light every day about the hazards of electronic waste," Cogswell said. To help foster sound electronic product stewardship in Oregon, the OSU Extension Master Recycling program has a number of suggestions.
Megan Cogswell, 541-725-2035
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.