Every other Thursday, I rise early to begin what has been a twice-a-month ritual for many years now—sorting through the recycling bins at my home and lugging them outdoors for curbside collection. Neither rain, nor snow, nor even sleep deprivation from a late-night Red Sox game keeps me from my routine.
We recycle just about every item the trash hauler will take, from cardboard toilet paper rolls to all sorts of plastic packaging and anything else that carries that little triangle with a "6" (or lower number) inside it.
Yet inside my garage sit three old, out-of-date PCs that I just don't know what to do with. While recycling of everyday goods has become relatively simple, there's still no clear path for recycling old electronics. Though some municipalities have drop-off centers for these items, there's still no guarantee that they won't end up in the hands of dealers who ship them to Third World countries, where people dismantle them for parts and then illegally dump them in places like rivers.
In a recent research brief, Adrian Gonzalez, director of ARC Advisory Group's Logistics Executive Council, says that the inconvenient truth of many green initiatives is that they often have negative side effects, even if the net results are positive. "Tradeoffs exist because most products, manufacturing processes, and supply chains were not designed with sustainability in mind," says Gonzalez.
But high-tech companies are getting better at addressing the disposal issues. Our cover story last month revealed that Hewlett-Packard recovered 187 million pounds of electronics globally in 2006. HP has a goal of recycling two billion pounds of electronic products and supplies by the end of 2010.
Yet the overall situation is sobering. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that nearly 40 million PCs will power down for the final time over the next few years. And the pending switchover to digital high-definition television may result in just as many analog TV sets' being disposed of in the next couple years.
The problem is, there's just no place for this e-waste to go. The January issue of National Geographic ("High-Tech Trash," page 64) presents a sobering picture of the plight of obsolete electronics, noting that the majority of old TVs and computer monitors still end up in landfills.
With a continued emphasis on green, maybe it's time for electronics manufacturers to step up and help to streamline the recycling process. Or perhaps a mandated solution, such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) in Europe, is necessary.
In the meantime, I'll keep juggling those old PCs every time I need to get the snow blower out of the garage, and resist the temptation to throw them in the trash—a simpler path than recycling them.