I didn’t have to look very far to discover the scope of the growing problem e-waste is causing. The internet is loaded with videos and images of poor third world citizens as young as 6 or 7 ‘recycling’ our discarded circuit boards, wires and monitors. They squat in the muck next to dirty piles of PC components, hacking apart the pieces with cleavers, bricks and stones. Alternatively, the electronics are stirred in buckets of acid that dissolves the circuit boards in a toxic yellowish plume of fumes. PVC coated wires are burnt in piles which exposes their copper but generates columns of acrid, poisonous smoke, leaving contaminated ash to wash into rivers and soak into the soil. These recycling methods release a vast, deadly cocktail of lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, sulphur and PCBs.
But for the people running the unregulated recycling businesses, this is a small price to pay. Salvaging the precious copper, silver, gold and various chips and components the e-waste yields generates an income. A computer that costs $20 to recycle in the U.S. costs only $2 in India, - a worthwhile business opportunity in any 3rd world country.
How does the electronic waste end-up there?
After all, didn’t Europe pass legislation barring the export of e-waste to foreign countries? Sadly, a loophole for ‘end of life donations’ as charitable gifts makes it possible to fill shipping containers with up to 8.7 million tons of second hand electronics annually, and ship them to countries like Ghana, Lagos, China and India. As the recent news stories have revealed, many of these containers pass through Antwerp. Shipping costs are low as the waste provides ballast for the return trip in the same container ships that supply the huge quantities of goods we import from these countries in the first place. The term ‘donations’ is a thin veil for a means of diverting the fastest growing stream of waste we have. One African NGO received 10,000 computers donated from a European organization and found only 2000 actually worked. Yes, only 20 to 25 percent of the donated electronics could actually be used. The rest are ‘recycled’ and/or dumped.
The solution: Thanks to toughened Legislation called the WEEE Directive (waste electrical and electronic equipment), importers and producers are legally obligated to take back used equipment and see that it’s disposed of ecologically. Enter Recupel. This non-profit organization oversees and coordinates the collection and treatment of e-waste here in Belgium.
Who pays Recupel?
You do. Every time you buy an electric or electronic device, you’re charged a little extra to see that it gets disposed of responsibly when your through with it. You may even see it as a separate charge on your invoice. Recupel outlines on their well organized site (in French, Dutch, German and English) what options we have to do the right thing when it comes time to upgrade that old computer, cell phone, scanner, fridge, dryer... There are essentially the following options:
- If it works, give it a new life by passing it along to someone you know or a used-goods center. At these centers it will be refurbished and sold on at a reduced price. For larger items like freezers and fridges, many offer a pick-up service. Recupel lists two options: the Kringloopwinkels in Flanders or the Ressources network in Wallonia and Brussels.
- If it's dead, take it to your local container park and simply put it into the appropriate bin. Recupel will take it from there.
- Alternatively, bring it back to a retailer. As the Recupel site states, ‘the law obliges retailers to take back an old appliance, free of charge, upon the purchase of a new, equivalent appliance’. I wish I’d know this before I had gone into the local Carrefour to grudgingly buy my replacement printer. It doesn’t even matter where you originally purchased the old item or what brand it is! If it’s a bigger appliance and is being delivered, the merchant is still obliged to take back your old appliance free of charge if you don’t need it anymore.
- Call Net Brussel/Brxuelles-Proprété at 0800/98181 and, once every 6 months (max), they’ll come by and collect up to 2 m3 of (any) waste from your home - free!
Before you pass it on...
Recupel asks that the equipment be complete when you dispose of it - motherboard intact, washing machine motor still in place etc... and that stuff like vacuum cleaner bags, frying fat, packaging etc. be removed. It was hard to do, but my son and I dutifully resisted the temptation to tear the printer apart in order to scavenge any usable motors, gears and other interesting bits.
A word of warning: If you’re getting rid of a computer, be sure to completely wipe the hard drive. In 2003, two MIT students bought 158 disk drives from various sources and discovered over 5000 credit card numbers, detailed personal financial information and gigabytes of private email. Protect yourself. Essentially you need to overwrite all the data on your disk drive with random data. Formatting the drive only removes the bits of code that keep the computer from overwriting specific areas on the hard disk, leaving the old data still sitting there.
Although manufacturers are gradually greening their processes and replacing the hazardous materials in their products with more ecologically sensitive alternatives, we still need to consider the whole life-cycle of the electronics we buy - especially when it’s time to get rid of them. Who knows what life our old printer and scanner will lead now that they’re waiting in their bin at the container park. Re-use? Dismantling? At least I can rest fairly assured it’s staying here and being delt with locally and responsibly.
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 edition of the Sunbeams Newsletter.
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