The Value in E-Waste

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The following editorial was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday May 6, 2018 as part of the "Raise Your Hand" column in the Insights section.

By: Carlston Chang, Punahou School Class of 2018
Olivia Stoetzer, St. Andrew's Priory Class of 2019
Dorien James Dacoco, Farrington High School Class of 2018

At St. Andrew’s Schools across from the State Capitol, many old computers, monitors, projectors and printers are stored in the Technology Department taking up valuable space. The old equipment once used by students and teachers years ago but now collect dust.  This situation is far from unique. Throughout our state, schools and individuals struggle to deal with electronic waste (e-waste).

In 2006, e-waste was banned from disposal in Honolulu. Two years later, the Hawaii State Legislature passed the Electronic Waste and Television Recycling and Recovery Act, which requires manufacturers of televisions, computers, computer monitors, and laptops to provide recycling options for their consumers. Unfortunately, laws have done little to stop the quietly growing epidemic of e-waste in Hawaii and across the globe.

In 2012, the United Nations conservatively estimated that the e-waste produced that year was enough to fill the Empire State building 100 times, and the number of cellular phones on the planet was one-third greater than the number of toilets in the world. Since then, the use of technology in developing nations has soared and the amount of e-waste has grown with it.

Disposing of e-waste improperly is harmful for the environment. Burning e-waste without proper environmental protocols emits numerous hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere. Burying and dumping e-waste results in substances such as mercury and lead seeping into the ground, contaminating surface and groundwater. Workers who handle e-waste at illegal disposal sites are also subject to unsafe and hazardous conditions.

Recycling e-waste responsibly has economic benefits that go along with its environmental benefits. Phones, computers, and other electronics each contain tiny amounts of precious metals. The UN estimated that the value of global e-waste in 2014 was about $35 billion. In 2015, Achim Steiner, the UN Environment Chief, called our e-waste problem, “economic stupidity because we are throwing away an enormous amount of raw materials that are essentially re-usable.”

As technology advances and manufacturers continue to design products meant to last less than two years, the e-waste epidemic will worsen if nothing is done.

In Hawaii, the law that requires Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) to provide recycling options for e-waste has potential to do good for the community. Unfortunately, the programs offered by OEMs are under-utilized since many consumers are unaware of the need to dispose of e-waste properly and their recycling options.

We can solve our problem of e-waste through heightened awareness. Taking steps to responsibly dispose of e-waste can do good for the environment and community. Goodwill, for example, has a robust e-waste recycling program available for the public. Other community groups hold monthly e-waste drives for community members to drop off old and unused electronics.

Today, it is estimated that only 12.5% of e-waste is recycled. Though e-waste makes up only two percent of our nation’s landfills, it is responsible for seventy percent of the toxic waste in those landfills.