Minnesota has long been concerned about the growing number of electronic products entering the waste stream, particularly those containing cathode ray tubes (CRTs), such as computer monitors and televisions.
- July 2007: Minnesota Electronics Recycling Act. A new Minnesota law went into effect on recycling "video display devices" from households: televisions, computer monitors, and laptop computers. To sell these devices to households in Minnesota, manufacturers will have to register with the state and pay a fee, as well as collect and recycle "covered electronic devices" to meet recycling goals set out in the law.
- July 2006: The state enacted a disposal ban on CRT-containing devices.
- 2005-2006: Minnesota participates in the Midwest Regional Electronic Waste Recycling Policy Initiative.
- 1999: Minnesota named electronic products containing CRTs as a priority for product stewardship initiatives.
Product stewardship means that everyone involved in designing, manufacturing, selling and using products takes responsibility for the environmental impacts at every stage of a product's life. In particular, product stewardship asks manufacturers to share in the financial and physical responsibility for recovering and recycling products when people are done using them. When manufacturers share in the costs and responsibility for collecting and recycling products, they have an incentive to design products differently, to reduce toxic constituents and increase the use of recycled materials.
Minnesota, along with a growing number of other states, is asking electronics manufacturers and retailers to help establish and fund collection and recycling programs for old electronic products. In initiatives at both the state and national levels, the Product Stewardship team advocates programs that achieve the following criteria:
- Convenient, accessible collection opportunities provided throughout the state;
- Costs of collection and recycling are incorporated into product prices, so that recycling programs are not funded with tax dollars, and so that consumers are not charged a drop-off fee for recycling;
- Reuse and recycling of old electronics increases over time, with measures of progress such as recycling goals and monitoring to assess progress.
- Efficient, effective programs that seek to lower costs while maintaining environmental protection.
Why electronics? Increasing volume, toxicity concerns, recycling potential
According to a 1999 study by the National Safety Council, 20.6 million computer monitors became obsolete in 1998, and only 11% of those were recycled. NSC believes the lifespan of a personal computer has decreased from 4-5 years down to just two years, with nearly 500 million computers becoming obsolete between 1997 and 2006. NSC anticipates that three-quarters of all computers ever bought in the U.S. remain stockpiled in storerooms, attics, garages, and basements. Sweeping changes in technology, such as the anticipated conversion to digital broadcast television, shorten the useful lives of electronic devices and promise to increase the amount of electronics in waste.
The rapidly growing number of computers, televisions and other electronic items becoming obsolete means that a substantial quantity of hazardous and toxic materials may also enter the waste stream. Electronic products contain lead and other heavy metals that are toxic if released into the environment. CRTs are considered the single largest source of lead in Minnesota's municipal waste, containing 5-8 pounds of lead per unit.
There is a growing body of research into the toxicity of electronic components and materials.
- Researchers at Jackson State University (Mississippi) tested printed wire boards (PWB) from personal computers using the toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP). Among the heavy metals contained in these components, lead was found to be the predominant element that causes the toxicity characteristic of the PC components, with concentrations 30-100 times the regulatory level of 5 mg/L for classifying a waste as hazardous. The motherboard in a PC contributed 50–80% of the total lead that could leach out from all the PWBs in the PC under the TCLP test conditions. TCLP Heavy Metal Leaching of Personal Computer Components
- The University of Florida has completed research with CRTs, testing electronic waste to see if lead leached out in sufficient quantity to classify CRTs as a toxicity characteristic (TC) hazardous waste. Results indicated that color CRTs, in a majority of cases, exceeded the TC limit for lead. Additional devices are now being tested to determine whether they qualify as TC hazardous wastes. Environmental Science & Technology #34 (2000).
Follow-up research was conducted, with TCLP was conducted on a number of other electronic devices, including computer mice, keyboards, VCRs, printers, and laptop computers. Leaching of Hazardous Chemicals from Discarded Electronic Devices.
- Research by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Hazardous Materials Laboratory (HML) found that sampled laptops and LCD monitors exceed that state’s hazardous waste thresholds. Determination of regulated elements in discarded laptop computers, LCD monitors, Plasma TVs and LCD TVs
- Brominated flame retardants (BFR) are used in the plastic casings and circuit boards of electronic equipment such as computers and TVs. BFRs are suspected endocrine disrupters, and can impact human health. Two common additives used in flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) and polybrominated biphenyls (PBB), can leak out of electronic products and can persist in the environment for years. More information: www.svtc.org
Research conducted by the Computer Take-Back Campaign (CTBC) and Clean Production Action (CPA) found BFRs in dust on the surface of computers. Dust samples were taken from computers in public places, such as university computer labs and legislative offices, in eight states. In all, sixteen samples of dust were taken from the central processing units (CPUs) and monitors of computers; PBDE residues (a class of fire retardant chemicals) were found on every computer sampled. Learn more: www.computertakeback.com/the_problem/bfr.cfm
Electronic products contain valuable glass, metals and plastics that can be used to make new products. Several electronics manufacturers have started using recycled plastics and glass from old electronics in their new products, as well as designing new products that can be more easily disassembled for recycling.
In 1999, a statewide electronics collection and recycling project was conducted in Minnesota. The project yielded several key findings on recycling methods and markets:
- Plastics recovered from old television sets were analyzed and were found to meet quality specifications for use in new electronic products.
- Recycling the old CRT glass into new CRT glass is less expensive than smelting the CRT glass to recover the lead.