While 20 states, plus New York City, currently have landfill or incineration bans on electronics, research suggests these bans may not be as effective as legislators originally hoped.
The overall e-waste recycling rate remains dismally low. Only 25 percent of consumer electronics are recovered for recycling in the U.S., according to the most recent EPA data available (downloadable as a PDF).
It’s often difficult to police e-waste bans, and a significant number of U.S. residents remain unaware of alternatives for properly disposing of e-waste — causing many cell phones, computers and televisions to end up in the trash, said Jean-Daniel M. Saphores, an applied economist at the University of California-Irvine.
“The patchwork of state-by-state or even city-by-city measures that has been adopted to deal with e-waste have been ineffective,” Saphores said at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Indianapolis last month. “To implement more sustainable policies, producers, regulatory agencies and non-governmental organizations should adopt policies that focus on the big picture, which includes looking at the whole life cycle of products to minimize adverse environmental and public-health impacts.”
Estimates suggest that more than 84 million obsolete or broken television sets were gathering dust in closets, attics, garages and basements in households in the United States in 2010, along with almost 200 million cell phones and millions of old computers.
In addition to the valuable “rare-earth” elements that make them attractive for recycling, many out-of-date electronics also contain toxic materials that can leach out if they are disposed of in landfills. The glass in CRT TV sets contains lead, and electronic circuit boards contain arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. The rechargeable batteries in cell phones contain cobalt, zinc and copper.
Toxic ingredients are what motivate many state legislators to push for landfill bans to ensure proper disposal of e-waste, but there have been few studies on the effectiveness of those restrictions, Saphores said.
At the meeting, the economist reported on a survey he conducted of U.S. households to find out how many broken, obsolete or unused cell phones and televisions they had in storage, what their intentions were regarding these items, and what they had done in the past with old cell phones and TVs.
Saphores’ 2010 survey of 3,156 households that are representative of the U.S. population concluded that state bans for CRTs and LCDs were “largely ineffective,” but California’s Cell Phone Recycling Act did have a significant positive effect in encouraging consumers to recycle old phones.
The study showed that women and the elderly tend to be less aware of the e-waste recycling options available to them and called for increased education among these demographics.
Additionally, Saphores suggested a deposit system where consumers pay a little more for their electronics up front and receive a rebate for recycling them.
“This already exists for car batteries, for example, and is in place for beverage containers,” he told LiveScience.com. “And it’s working very well.”
To find your local recycling solution for properly disposing of unwanted electronics, use Earth911’s recycling directory.