April 2, 2015
Recycling has become a huge industry around the world. It seems to be something to feel good about since recycling awareness has been a goal for many years. Before we pat ourselves on the back, maybe we should find out what goes on in this new industry and find out if all recycling is done responsibly.
Suppose you buy a new printer and use it for 4 years. During that time, you replace the ink cartridges with new ones each time and throw the old ones in the trash. Those empty ink cartridges go to the landfill where they sit waiting to degrade for 500 to 1000 years.
At the end of 4 years, your printer is not printing like it did at first so you decide it needs to be replaced. In some states, like New York, it is illegal to simply dump electronics such as printers, TVs and PCs in landfills, so you decide to do the right thing and take it to a recycler. Many recyclers charge a fee to take them, so you go to one that has an occasional drop-off point and takes electronics off your hands for recycling with no charge to you. Seems like a good deal. You get it off your hands and feel good about doing the right thing.
From the drop-off location, your printer is taken to a building where electronics are sorted and loaded into large shipping containers. The shipping containers are transported to a loading dock and loaded onto freighters for a journey overseas, perhaps to China or India. The ships’ crews rarely know the contents of the containers. When the freighter docks, the containers are offloaded quickly.
Buyers negotiate prices and once the contents of a container are sold, they are hauled to the buyer’s facility for sorting. Workers are paid, usually by the unit, to disassemble the contents and put the various components into piles or bins according to what they are. From here, the parts go to different areas of the facility for further processing.
Circuit boards go to areas where the heavy metals are extracted using open vats or by hand without any protective wear for the workers doing the work or any measures taken to keep toxins out of the environment. Plastics that can be recycled are melted down in open vats with workers left breathing in the toxic fumes and the fumes going into the air that everyone else breathes as well.
The extracted recyclable materials are sent to companies that use them to make new parts for new products that then claim to be made for recycled materials. It all looks good to the consumer who is not aware of the processes used in recycling the materials. The new products made from recycled materials here are then shipped back to the US in the same way as the old electronics arrived.
The workers who have been exposed to the toxins are paid very little, but they have little choice. In the part of the world they live in, jobs are in short supply so the health hazards involved do not stop them from taking jobs that endanger their health and shorten their lives.
Now, take the same make and model printer and lets follow it through from purchase to recycled by a responsible recycler using better e-waste management methods.
The printer uses the ink cartridges that came with it and when they need to be replaced, recycled cartridges are used. Empty cartridges are taken to a school, church or other organization with an ink cartridge recycle box. Doing this serves multiple purposes. It is the responsible way to dispose of empty cartridges so they don’t fill up landfill sites, gives an organization the ability to raise needed funds and keeps usable items in use longer.
After being used for 4 years, it is time to replace the printer and responsibly dispose of the old one. First, you research the printer companies to find out how their refurbished printers are refurbished and how recycled materials are processed into new printers. You may not be able to find out everything you need to know but find out what you can.
Now that you have a new printer, find out about the various recyclers and what their e-waste management methods are. In some cases, not only can you turn in your old printer for recycling at no charge but you might even get some cash for it. Be sure you look into e-waste management certifications of companies you deal with.
You want to be sure you deal only with companies holding e-waste steward certifications from reputable sources. It will take some research and work to find responsible companies you can count on the first time but after that, you will know where to go so you can rest easy with the knowledge you really did do the right thing for the planet.
A responsible recycling company uses methods that are safe for employees as well as the surrounding community.
A responsible recycling company uses methods that are safe for employees as well as the surrounding community. Plastic parts are not simply tossed aside to be hauled to landfills where they will sit for over 500 years before finally being broken down enough to mix in the soil as a nonnutritive part of the soil.
Instead, these parts are sent to a processor that melts them down using safer, more eco-friendly methods or grinding them up to be mixed with other materials to make various products. The next patio furniture made from recycled materials you buy could have plastic from your old printer in it.
Heavy metals and other toxins are reused to make new electronic components or disposed of safely and properly. Workers are not exposed to open vats melting down toxic components emitting fumes that are major health hazards. The air we breathe, even many miles away, is not compromised by the fumes exuded into the atmosphere.
Ultimately, you have to make the final decision and then you have to live with it. Would you rather do it the easy way and just try not to think about what really happens in the course of recycling or would you prefer knowing you use a responsible recycler and be able to breathe deeper knowing the air you breathe doesn’t have particles of one of your old electronic devices in it?