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What We Can Learn from the U.K.: A lesson in e-waste recycling

I know Independence Day is coming up for us U.S.-based folks, but I have to take a moment to praise the British for their efforts in regard to waste.

We are hungry for technology.  And greenies are no exception.  Our computers, cellphones, and television  (along with our battery-powered toddler cars, our magic projector-style mobile, and are Gameboys) will eventually die the death of all beloved (and not so beloved) electronic items.  Then they will become electronic (or “e”) waste and become part of a nightmarish after-life that is illustrated by towering landfills, barges of garbage without a home, and warehouses of recyclables waiting a better price.  E-waste composes 70% of the toxic waste found in landfills.  Yes, toxic.  Not only does your old TV, computer, and cellphone contain valuable and recyclable metals, like aluminum, they also contain hazardous materials such as mercury, lead, and cadmium (just to name a few).  In landfills, these hazardous materials can leach and in minute amounts contaminate drinking water and soil.

“But I recycle!” you think.  Great. Yet, in many countries e-waste is the fasting growing type of waste. In the U.S., less than 20% of our e-waste is recycled (only 10% of computers and 14% of TVS) and in the E.U., 70% of e-waste is still unaccounted.

Wanting to recycle and being able to recycle are two different things.  The latter, takes government and business help.  In response to this very issue, the U.K. has taken aggressive and progressive action through the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive).  Passed in 2007, the aim of the WEEE is to reduce the amount of electronics produces and to “encourage everyone to reuse, recycle and recover it.”

Maybe the biggest idea behind the WEEE is actually a simple one: that manufacturers should be responsible for safely disposing of the items that they create.  Instead, in the U.S. the way it works is the PERSON buys the TV and then that PERSON is responsible for the 30 pound box of toxic waste that is left when the TV wears out. (Many Americans are experiencing this situation now with the conversion to digital television).  If you want to recycle it, you have to figure out where to do that, drive the TV there, and then hope they are legitimate.  Any expense associated with doing the “right thing” belongs to that PERSON.  As a result, what I see in my neighborhood is a lot of TVs sitting beside the garbage bins. Apparently, there are 180 million computers sitting in storage in the US waiting to be disposed of properly. If the PERSON gives up waiting, the TV is taken and dumped in the local landfill where the groundwater and soil are at risk and any negative effects (poisoned fish, children, workers) are the problem of the GOVERNMENT and SOCIETY.  

Now, in the U.K., the way this works is that the COMPANY that makes the TV is responsible for financing the collection, treatment, recovery and disposal of the TV.  There, YOU can take your TV back to the RETAILER where you bought it or hand it back to the delivery person who is bringing your new TV. Then the COMPANY that made the TV picks up a bunch of them from the RETAILER and pays to properly recycle and dispose of the TV.  

For those who argue that making businesses responsible for their own waste will hurt businesses, it would appear that the U.K. model shows that it actually helps grow businesses.  A plethora of waste management companies have developed that help businesses of all sizes, from retailers to larger producers, understand how to meet their responsibilities and then implement these strategies.  And, since the implementation of the WEEE, recycling is up.

Other changes have also been in effect in the U.K. to make recycling seem like a better option for businesses.  Landfill taxes have increased by 25%. As well, in April 2009 they developed regulations for Battery recycling that make all retailers selling batteries (over 32 kg worth) responsible for offering free collection and recycling to their customers.

Is it time to clean the computer out of your closet?  

In Chicago, there is the city household computer and waste recycling facility that will take your old computer, TV, or cellphone and recycle it for you for free.  Elsewhere in the U.S., you can look to for residential resources.  In the U.K.,  businesses can use a company like Waste Care and individuals need go no further than the retail store where they bought the cellphone, TV, computer, or battery.

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