Since April 1, 2011, safely ridding yourself of broken or outdated electronic equipment like computers, printers, keyboards and television sets became easier in Chautauqua County and New York state when the Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act took effect. Publicity was low key but the law was designed to keep electronic equipment out of landfills where toxic and poisonous chemicals wash out over time to drain into ground water and creeks. Elizabeth Grossman, in her book ''High Tech Trash'' (2006), pointed out tissue from seals in San Francisco, polar bears in the Arctic, herring off the coast of Holland and human breast tissue all contained synthetic chemicals used to make plastics for electronic equipment.
Unlike recyclables, glass, paper, plastic and cans we set out at the street, electronic waste requires special treatment to remove hazardous chemicals like lead, mercury and cadmium and to recover precious, valuable metals like gold, silver, copper and platinum.
The electronic recycling law requires manufacturers of electronic equipment who sell their product in New York to: 1. ''Accept free of charge for collection, handling and recycling or reuse electronic waste for which it is the manufacturer including any other manufacturer's brand if a consumer is buying electronic equipment of the same type;'' 2. Register with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and pay a fee of $5,000; 3. Disclose if their product exceeds maximum concentration of lead, mercury and other specific chemicals; 4. Provide the public with education how to destroy personal data on their computer, and; 5. Provide to the DEC the total weight of electronic equipment sold in the state for the year and pay a $3,000 reporting fee.
Covered electronic equipment includes desktop and laptop computers, keyboards, flat-screen monitors, and wires.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
The European Union initiated similar electronic recycling laws in the early 1990s under the realm of ''product stewardship or extended producer responsibility.'' When a manufacturer assumed physical responsibility for their equipment, they were more apt to incorporate a design for ease of dismantling during recycling and to reduce use of toxic chemicals. At least 20 American states now have electronic recycling laws similar to New York.
Sources for this discussion can be reviewed online by searching for ''Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act.'' One of the most commonly used and highly toxic elements is mercury, which is used in liquid crystal display (LCD) for laptop computers, flat-screen televisions, cellphones, digital cameras and fluorescent lights. Inside the equipment it is harmless, but if released to the air or ground water in a landfill and ingested by humans, the brain, lungs, kidneys and reproductive system can be damaged.
Recycling electronic equipment involves separating valuable metals from the toxic metals that are used on circuit boards, semiconductors and wires. This is done by shredding the items, applying magnets to separate iron from the material and melting or smelting the remainder to isolate copper, gold, silver, lead, platinum and mercury. A desktop computer may contain less than an ounce of gold, but in 2006 estimates of 200 million computers in the United States - calculated to 700,000 pounds of gold wasted - were sent to a landfill. Some mining companies started recycling computers to recover precious metals when they discovered it was as profitable as mining.
Currently, foreign countries in Southeast Asia and China can provide inexpensive manual labor to dismantle and recover precious and toxic chemicals. In 2006, 78 percent of electronic waste in China came from the United States.
Presently, drop-off sites in Chautauqua County for approved or ''covered'' electronic equipment are the three Chautauqua County transfer stations - in Falconer, Fredonia and Sherman - and four private, commercial establishments. As of Jan. 1, 2007, all cellphone producers were required to accept, free of charge, all cellphones for recycling.
Chautauqua County started early, prior the new recycling legislation, to prevent electronics from going to the landfill. The solid waste analyst at the county landfill, T.J. Pierce, told me much of the recovered electronic equipment in the county is sent to a consolidation and sorting facility, Regional Computer Recycle and Recovery in Victor, N.Y., which may then ship equipment overseas for recovery of useful chemicals.