Taking Control of the Electronic Problem
The ubiquitous nature of electronics, the constant need for the most up-to-date technology and the devastating social and environmental impacts of the things we depend on create a feeling of helplessness for the concerned consumer. There are choices that we can make at home and at work to strike a better balance. There are also important policies we need to understand, support, and strengthen if we want to address the problem at the global level.
There are a number of efforts out there to empower the consumer to better understand the problems related to electronics as well as weigh the impacts of differing products to minimize the negative impacts.
EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) is a comprehensive global environmental rating system that helps purchasers identify greener computers and other electronics. The EPEAT system was developed and managed through an open process involving representatives from various stakeholder groups. Manufacturing, environmental advocacy, academic, trade association, government and recycling entities all actively participate.
Consumers can learn how to avoid electronics made from “conflict minerals”. The mining of metals for electronic products is fueling a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the past 15 years that has resulted in the loss of more than five million lives and involved human rights violations including mass murders and rape. The government and rebel armies finance their operations through mining tin, tantalum, and tungsten (known as the “3 Ts”), as well as gold, for use in our cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and game devices. Two organizations, the Enough Project and Raise Hope for the Congo, work to raise awareness of conflict minerals and offer campaigns for colleges, cities, and individual consumers to minimize the chances that purchased electronics are made from conflict minerals.
One of the most important impact stages in the lifecycle of electronics is the use phase. It takes energy to run electronics, so it is important that consumers think about the energy efficiency of electronic products when making purchases. Happily, there is a well-established tool to help consumers in this area.
Energy Star is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency voluntary program that helps businesses and individuals save money and protect our climate through superior energy efficiency. Now in its 20th year, the Energy Star program has boosted the adoption of energy efficient products, practices, and services through partnerships, objective measurement tools, and consumer education. When consumers are done using high energy-use products, they should also put careful consideration into whether it is better to recycle the product rather than offer it for donation and reuse where it will continue to involve high levels of energy in its continued use.
E-Waste Certification Programs
While EPEAT helps consumers think about better purchasing options, there are also programs designed to help consumers ensure that their electronics are properly handled after they are done using them.
Currently two accredited certification standards exist on a national level: the Responsible Recycling (R2) Standard for Electronics Recyclers and e-Stewards®. These programs advance best management practices and offer a way to assess the environmental, worker health, and security practices of entities managing used electronics.
Oregon E-Cycles is a program managed by the Oregon DEQ that also helps consumers with their e-waste. The program is a producer responsibility program that ensures that anyone who sells computers in Oregon participates in the costs of the resulting e-waste. Anyone in Oregon can take seven or fewer computers (desktops, laptops and tablets), monitors, TVs and printers at a time to participating Oregon E-Cycles collection sites for free recycling. Computer peripherals (keyboards and mice) are also accepted free of charge. Other types of electronics are currently not included in this program.
While Oregon E-Cycles is an important way that the state is ensuring that producers are playing an active role in the full impact of their products, its certification process includes less stringent requirements than R2 and e-Stewards® for how materials are handled. It is best in Oregon to take e-waste to recyclers who are both listed by Oregon E-Cycles and certified by either R2 or e-Stewards®.