Electronic Electrical Waste Management in the United States Thesis

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¶ … World War II, researchers have introduced an enormous array of electrical devices and, increasingly, electronics of all types including personal computers, televisions, videocassette recorders, cellular telephones and so forth -- all of which contain various types and levels of toxic substances, including lead. The country's landfills quickly became clogged with these devices and the leachate that resulted from this collection was found to contain inordinately high levels of these toxic substances, In response to these findings, a number of important steps have been taken to resolve this situation, including federal and state legislation and public-private initiatives targeted at reducing the levels of these toxic substances into the waste stream or better controlling them if and when they do arrive at a landfill facility. The purpose of this study was to provide a review of the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and governmental literature concerning past and current waste management practices for electrical devices and electronic components in the United States to show that existing techniques have achieved an acceptable level of validity in mitigating their impact on the environment. A summary of the research, a discussion of current and future trends and recommendations are provided in the conclusion.

Electronic/Electrical Waste Management Practices in the United States

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Thesis on Electronic Electrical Waste Management in the United States Assignment

By any measure, Americans produce more garbage than any other society on earth today, and while an increasing amount of this trash is being recycled, the nation's landfills are becoming choked with the nation's discards including a rapidly growing percentage of electrical devices and electronic components of every description. Like the other types of trash that enter the universal waste stream, the flood of electrical devices and electronics that has been embraced by Americans since the end of World War II can also be recycled and there are ongoing efforts to identify new approaches that will improve the techniques used to extract precious metals and valuable recyclable materials from these products. In the meantime, more and more electrical devices and electronic products such as personal computers, televisions, cellular telephones and so forth are still managing to find their way to the nation's landfills and illegal dump sites as well, and all of these devices contain varying levels of a wide range of toxic substances, including most particularly high levels of lead. To identify past and current practices, this purpose of this paper was to provide an examination of the historic trends in electronic/electrical waste management practices used in the United States to determine their current efficacy in managing the electrical devices and electronics that enter the universal waste stream. A discussion of these issues based on relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and governmental literature is followed by a summary of the research, current and future trends, and recommendations in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis

The past 60 years or so have witnessed an explosive growth in the amount of electronics and electrical devices findings their way into the waste stream. For instance, Gebrewold (1999) reports that, "Since World War II, there has been a growth in new products based on the use of plastics and chemicals. With this growth, questions have arisen concerning the manner in which hazardous waste disposal is managed or mismanaged" (p. 11). Indeed, at first glance, it would seem that the United States is being buried under a flood of electronics and electrical products such as discarded computers, monitors, cellular telephones, and televisions with one of the most toxic components of these devices being their lead content. In this regard, Brown (2004) emphasizes that, "Almost all electronic devices contain lead, and such devices are proliferating -- and becoming obsolete -- at breathtaking speed" (p. 734). This point is also made by Hosansky (2004) who notes, "Computers, televisions and other electronic products are producing a worrisome byproduct. Across the country, billions of tons of potentially dangerous e-waste are piling up in landfills, warehouses and homes. The problem is getting more significant every year as innovations quickly render electronic products obsolete" (p. 20). According to Schmidt (2002), "e-Waste is the fastest growing component of municipal trash by a factor of three. Consumer electronics in the United States already account for 70% of the heavy metals, including 40% of the lead, found in landfills. Getting all this toxic e-junk out of the waste stream is an environmental priority" (p. 188).

In fact, although there are a number of toxic materials in most electronics and electric devices, lead is among the most toxic by far. For instance, based on the frequently cited findings of a report of 12 different types of electronic items typically found in landfills in the United States sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and published in July 2004, Timothy G. Townsend determined that these electronic items leached lead at concentrations that exceeded the EPA threshold for characterizing a waste as being hazardous. Townsend's report, entitled, "RCRA Toxicity Characterization of Computer CPUs and Other Discarded Electronic Devices," was an extension of a previous study concerning the cathode ray tubes (CRTs) that are used in computer monitors and televisions. The previous study by Townsend and his colleagues was conducted in 1999 at the State University of Florida; the results of this study determined that color CRTs, when subjected to regulatory tests for hazardous waste, leached out 18.5 milligrams of lead per liter, a level that exceeded the 5 milligrams regulatory threshold for hazardous waste (Musson, Jang, Townsend & Chung, 1999). According to Brown, "CRTs contain an average of about four pounds of lead. There are smaller quantities in the solder used in other electronic devices" (p. 734). In his more recent study, Townsend used an EPA test called the "toxicity characteristic leaching procedure" (TCLP) which determines the mobility of analytes in different waste types to determine the toxic content of a wide range of electronic items including computer central processing units (CPUs or the "towers" on personal computers), televisions, videocassette recorders, printers, cellular phones, remote controls, computer mice, keyboards, and smoke alarms.

Using the EPA procedures for conducting the TCLP, Townsend crushed these different waste products, mixed them with simulated leachate fluid composed of acetic acid base, and agitated the mix in a drum container for 18 hours; following this mixing process, the resulting leachate was examined to identify various levels of metal concentrations (Brown, 2004). Following the TCLP's protocol, the toxicity characteristic leaching (TCLE) procedure used by Townsend to determine lead concentrations stipulates that concentrations of more than 5 milligrams per liter are regarded as hazardous and all of the devices that Townsend used in his test were shown to leach lead concentrations above the hazardous threshold under different conditions. In addition, virtually all types of electronics waste typically contain a wide range of other potentially toxic chemicals, including mercury, chromium, and brominated flame retardants (Brown, 2004). Likewise, according to the editors of the Journal of Environmental Health, "Desktop computers are built with materials that contain toxic chemicals and are regarded as hazardous waste. Color monitors routinely fail toxicity characteristic leachate procedure (TCLP) tests, and testing in progress for other electronics indicates that CPUs, servers, and cell phones are unlikely to pass TCLP tests" (The importance of recycling computers, 2003, p. 51). Taken together, it would seem that the sky is really falling after all and it is made of electrical devices and electronics, but the reality of the situation is that a number of significant initiatives have been making a difference in how these products are handled after they end their useful lifespan that prevent them from entering the waste stream at all. Moreover, there are several efforts in place and underway that are specifically designed to provide a viable framework in which to manage these devices in a waste management setting and these are discussed further below.

In response to these findings and other studies that emphasized the toxicity of electronics and electrical devices being discarded in the nation's landfills, a number of federal and state governmental as well as private industry initiatives have been implemented that have helped reverse or otherwise mitigate these trends. Not surprisingly, the increasing amounts of these toxic chemicals have been the focus of an increasing amount of attention from federal and state policymakers in recent years and waste management practices are becoming more strict for electronics and electrical products. For instance, as early as 1965, the EPA implemented the Solid Waste Disposal Act to help reduce the amount of hazardous waste, including electronics and electrical devices, that were finding their way to the nation's landfills (Introduction to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 2005). This legislation was followed in succession by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984, the Federal Facilities Compliance Act of 1992 and the Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act of 1996 (Introduction to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 2005). Moreover, the EPA has implemented its own initiatives to address the problem of so-called "e-waste." For instance, in 1989, EPA established the Waste Reduction Innovative Technology Evaluation (WRITE) program, in… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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