U.S. Postal Service Begins E-Waste Recycling

e-wasteIn an effort to improve electronics recycling in the United States, the U.S. Postal Service is developing a free national collection program for small electronic items.

The program, now in a pilot stage, provides courtesy envelopes with pre-paid postage for patrons to deposit their unwanted digital cameras, printer cartridges, MP3 players, cell phones, and PDAs. International recycling company Clover Technologies Group processes the devices in its U.S. and Mexican facilities and then refurbishes and resells them if possible.

Now limited to select cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, the program may expand nationwide in the fall, and it eventually may accept a wider range of devices. "It doesn't cost us anything because [Clover] is paying for postage on the envelope," said Joanne Veto, a post office spokesperson. "For us, it's a really smart thing to do."

The program would be a de facto national electronic recycling program, the first for the United States. As the only industrialized nation not to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, which requires its signatories to notify developing nations of incoming hazardous waste shipments, many environmentalists have criticized the country for its lack of action to reduce the international spread of electronic garbage, known as e-waste.

Americans discard at least 2 million tons of household electronics each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Less than 20 percent of that e-waste is recycled, although state-led initiatives are beginning to improve this recycling rate. Once recycled, however, e-waste is frequently sold to brokers who ship it to the developing world, where it is often dismantled with little regard for worker safety, then burned in the open air or dumped into bodies of water.

The postal service program made it a priority to avoid sending e-waste to developing countries. "Are all these shipped to non-approved third world countries? No. Not at all. That was a big concern of the contract," said Eric Martin, Clover's vice president of sales.

The postal service hired environmental consulting firm MBDC, which is led by "cradle-to-cradle" visionary William McDonough, to oversee Clover's procedures. As part of an audit of the company's environmental and occupational operations, MBDC made a pre-arranged visit to a Clover facility in Mexico where electronics are tested and dismantled. "Lots of people are very concerned about [e-waste], as we are. Everything we saw exceeds traditional global practices for responsible recycling," said Steve Bolton, an MBDC senior consultant. "Worker exposure was not an issue."

If a product is not recycled, it is shipped internationally to smelters that strip the item of its plastics and metals. The remaining waste - in some facilities as little as half of 1 percent of the total collected waste (by weight) - is burned as fuel. But even the best industry practices are incapable of removing all e-waste toxins. A typical cell phone, for example, contains hazardous lead, beryllium, chromium, arsenic, and flame retardants.

While a national program that refurbishes electronics is necessary, Sarah Westervelt, e-waste coordinator with the Basel Action Network, a hazardous waste watchdog group, said she remains critical of a program that encourages guiltless consumption of more electronics. "Consumers need to pay for hazardous waste to be managed," Westervelt said. "Free programs...allow the U.S. to continue externalizing the impacts on human health and the environment by not solving the problem upstream where it has to be solved."

But MBDC's Bolton said that if more electronics are recycled and returned to manufacturers, less electronics would need to be produced. "Ideally what we are trying to do is change design," he said.

While the United States is among the leaders of e-waste production, it is not alone. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste each year. But while the United States has encouraged manufacturers to reduce hazardous waste in their products on a voluntary basis, the European Union has made such reductions mandatory.

Worldwatch Institute staff writer Ben Block can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.