With just a little effort, we can solve the problem of e-waste in our landfills
We have a looming environmental problem that, if not handled properly, will leave us with generations of waste and unfulfilled opportunity. In the weeks between Christmas and the Super Bowl, the problem is exacerbated. Nearly all of us are part of the problem, and we are each equally responsible for the solution.
The problem lies within the answer to this question: What are you going to do with your old television or computer monitor now that you have a shiny new flat screen and no longer need that bulky thing with a cathode ray tube? Tens of thousands of families are confronted with this decision, and they want to do the right thing. For most the answer is to put it in the rubbish can. Perhaps they assume that there is already a process in place for their waste or that the potential environmental impact from the lead, mercury and other hazardous materials can be handled by future generations.
We certainly need a better solution for the discarded electronics euphemistically called "e-waste." It is a complicated, challenging and potentially costly problem. Our friends with the city need to understand how far the public is willing to go in order to reduce, reuse and then to recycle e-waste.
There are good models to consider, and I encourage you to make your opinion heard in the coming election year when ideas are quickly transformed into platforms. In California the solution is a pay-at-the-register model. Just as with tires or batteries, a disposal fee is tacked onto the purchase of a new computer, monitor or television. This money is channeled to certified facilities that are then able to accommodate e-waste from the public at little to no cost to the disposer. This is a motivating model.
In Oregon it is strongly discouraged, yet not illegal, to throw away e-waste. The free market provides alternatives. Because they are not confronted with the shipping costs we face in Hawaii, the cost for this transaction is affordable enough to motivate responsible behavior. Groups like Freegeek are able to reduce the flow by reusing functional electronics and then recycling the true e-waste. They charge a mandatory fee for monitors, and most people pay the suggested fee for other peripherals.
Some states have adopted a take-back program, and, to a growing extent, many retailers like Dell or Apple will exchange your old computer for a new one. In the case where the program is government sponsored, there is no transaction fee at the register or when the equipment is dropped off. Reimbursement is sought from the manufacturers. This certainly gets e-waste flowing from the island, but it often deprives deserving individuals the opportunity to reuse good computers. Once a usable computer reaches a recycler, it is understandably presumed to be unusable.
In Hawaii it is legal for homeowners to throw away their e-waste, and given the privacy issues with searching trash cans to find violators, legislation alone is not likely to solve this. The free market provides alternatives at an average of 75 cents per pound, but this can make a well-intending homeowner shed a tear when they put their 17-inch monitor on a scale. People can call local charities, too, but separating the usable from the trash is overwhelming to the inexperienced.
I represent one of those charities that you call, and our specialty is re-purposing good computers. I must confess that my heart is often broken when people are unwilling to contribute or to pay anything to see their computers reused. However, they want Hawaii to be better, for the land to be cleaner and for the children to be smarter. I get calls from transitioning homeless, needy families and immigrants looking to learn English, and I seek out foster children and threatened youth in need of their own computer. Who should pay for this, the kind soul donating their computer, the poor souls in need of salvation or my home equity?
With these thoughts in mind, please consider what you would pay, if anything, to keep your e-waste out of the landfill and either reused by those in need or recycled responsibly. CNN recently recognized an e-waste handler in California as a hero for his work in reusing good computers for those in need. Imagine if everyone in Hawaii had a computer if they wanted or needed one. With all this talk about STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), let's focus on the roots: access.
R. Scott Belford is the founder and executive director of the Hawaii Open Source Education Foundation.