As state and local governments tighten laws on electronic waste, retail stores, government programs and private companies are offering a whole new array of e-cycling and cellphone buyback programs. We explore the surprising places our electronics end up after we throw them away–and what happens to the toxic components inside.


  • Walter Alcorn Vice President of Environmental Affairs, the Consumer Electronics Association
  • Ismail Oyekan Publisher, Electronic Waste Journal
  • Sarah Westervelt E-Stewardship Policy Director at the Basel Action Network (BAN).
  • Elizabeth Wilmot President and Founder, Turtle Wings


  • 12:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Worldwide, we throw away some 53 million tons of electronics each year, and the U.S. is the leading producer, if you will, of this so-called e-waste. As a result, recycling of electronics has become big business, both here and abroad. A whole array of cell phone buyback programs now pay cash for old cell phones that often get refurbished and resold, and states are stepping up with new laws on the responsibility of manufacturers for their electronics after they are thrown away. But although we're recycling record amounts of electronic waste now, it's not always clear where all that e-waste ends up.

  • 12:07:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDITons of old electronics are sold into murky global markets and dumped in developing countries where there are few or no regulations of the toxic components. Joining us to explore the growing problem of old electronics is Walter Alcorn. He is the vice president of environmental affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association, CEA. Walter Alcorn, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:05

    MR. WALTER ALCORNThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:08:07

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from NPR member station KUOW in Seattle, is Sarah Westervelt, who is the stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network, BAN. Sarah Westervelt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:22

    MS. SARAH WESTERVELTYou're welcome. Thank you, Kojo.

  • 12:08:24

    NNAMDISarah, let me start with you. The electronic waste that's generated each year in the U.S., about how much of that is recycled?

  • 12:08:32

    WESTERVELTWell, there are -- there's really only one source of information for that, as far as I know. The EPA did a study that determined that about 11 to 14 percent of electronic waste is actually collected for recycling. I assume that that number is raising as more and more programs are being put in place, but it's a very small percentage overall.

  • 12:08:56

    NNAMDIThirteen to 18 percent, Walter Alcorn, of what, old cell phones, televisions, computers? Once we throw them away, it's all electronic waste or e-waste. Do we know just how much electronic waste we are generating here each year?

  • 12:09:09

    ALCORNWell, again, Sarah actually noted the one source for that type of information. It's a very difficult question, maybe an easy question. The answer is difficult to find because this is not a system where there's regular reporting. There are a lot of independent businesses out there involved in the recycling of electronics, and it's really -- it is a little bit murky in a lot of places in terms of how much is collected and how much is recycled. But I think it is safe to say that well under half of the electronics that are out there are recycled, but it is increasing. I think Sarah is right. I think there are a lot of efforts underway, a lot of different levels to increase that number and, hopefully, to see recycling done responsibly as well.

  • 12:10:03

    NNAMDICan you give us a sense of how we disposed of our electronics over the past few decades or so?

  • 12:10:08

    ALCORNYeah. I think how we disposed of electronics is similar to how we disposed of everything else. We're seeing an interesting transition underway in this country. I think, in some ways Europe and some of the Asian countries have gotten there a little faster than we have. But in this country, solid waste management has been exclusively a local government concern and local government responsibility, and that's changing. Now, we have manufacturers that are involved in take-back programs and actually taking responsibility as your intro mentioned, or you mentioned in your intro, for these products once they get to end of life. I think, up to this point, it's safe to say that except for the electronic products that are inherently quite valuable, most of them have been winding up in landfills and solid waste incinerators.

  • 12:11:06

    NNAMDII was about to say we throw away something like 30 million computers a year. That's a lot of plastic, and there are other components like the monitors that are difficult to dispose of. What's in there, and what should be done with it?

  • 12:11:18

    ALCORNWell, that's really the big question for recycling. The truth is, is that there are valuable components, valuable materials in these old electronic products that can be used for other products and recycled appropriately. The plastic -- certainly, the metals, you know, the recycling system for metals is very old and very well established. So one of the things that we recognize is collection of these products is a significant challenge. It's not to say that that recycling is not also a challenge, making sure that it's done responsibly, but it's common sense. Once these products are distributed and sold to virtually every household in the country and every business, re-aggregating those material -- those electronics into a recycling system is really a huge undertaking.

  • 12:12:13

    NNAMDIWe're talking about the business of e-cycling with Walter Alcorn -- he's vice president of environmental affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association -- and Sarah Westervelt. She is the stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have a drawer full of gadgets you don't know what to do with, or are you concerned about where the electronics you've thrown away end up? 800-433-8850. You can go to our website,, to join this Tech Tuesday conversation. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or send your e-mail to Kojo, K-O-J-O Walter, the number of gadgets we're buying then throwing away is going up exponentially. However, you note that we're using a lot less material for many of these devices. A huge TV set, now a flat screen can hang on a wall.

  • 12:13:14

    ALCORNThat's right. You know, and it's interesting. I think the -- based on the data that CEA publishes, the number of consumer electronic devices, average number in every household has leveled off at about 25. Now, that's a big number. You know, 25 electronic gadgets in every household is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it has leveled off. What's really remarkable if you step back and think about it, and this is something that we're doing some study at CEA about, is the changes in technology that have resulted in use of less material. And the most obvious one is for televisions and computer monitors, the movement away from cathode ray tube-based devices to flat screens.

  • 12:14:03

    ALCORNSo you actually see now LCD, LED, plasma displacing the old heavy material intensive cathode ray tube devices. So, yeah, it's interesting. We've gone from a time when someone bought a big new television. It typically sat on a corner of the living room, and it didn't move. And now, we are -- we're hanging televisions on the wall and making them swivel and adjustable, and I think that is remarkable. And it's really due in large part to the improvements and advances in technology, but it does have a resource utilization benefit as well. Obviously, the less resources that our industry has to use to produce its products, the better it is for the environment, the better it is, well, for everyone.

  • 12:14:56

    NNAMDISarah Westervelt, even though devices are getting smaller and perhaps using fewer materials, we're still generating a lot more e-waste than we did in the past, aren't we?

  • 12:15:08

    WESTERVELTWe absolutely are, just simply because people are buying them at a faster rate. As technology improves and new gadgets come out, people would like to keep up with the latest technology, even though they've got perfectly functional equipment at the moment. I think one of the things that's really important to understand about this particular waste stream is that it has both valuable materials, as Walter was saying. It has metals, for example, cooper and aluminum and steel. But it also has a number of -- a large number of hazardous materials, and I'm talking about all electronics here, beryllium, mercury, lead, arsenic, antimony. As these products get smaller and smaller, we add -- the manufacturers tend to add more brominated flame retardants because you have plastics getting closer and closer and closer to the heat sources.

  • 12:16:01

    WESTERVELTSo the problem with this waste stream is not only do we have a very large volume of products, electronic products that are no longer wanted, working or not, but they're also hazardous. They have hazardous materials in them, and usually, they are very complex combinations of materials. And they're difficult to separate, and it requires smelting, for example, to recover the different metals in a circuit board, or it requires a glass furnace in order to try to reuse some of that CRT, the cathode ray tube, glass that Walter was talking about. So it's a waste stream that has a large number of hazards in it, and is very complex and difficult to separate and to recycle.

  • 12:16:45

    NNAMDIOn to Mark in Falls Church, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:50

    MARKYes. I am not a big fan of federal intervention in a lot of things, but in this particular case, this waste stream is so specific that it would seem that there should be some kind of regulations to cover that these things should be collected and recycled. On the other hand, just general packaging, you know, things you buy at the grocery store, shampoo bottles and so on, a lot of them are not labeled as to whether they're recyclable or not, and just people at home trying to decide whether or not to throw this in the recycling bin or not. You know, you can look at it and see if you think you know what the material is, but if it doesn't have a little label on it, then you don't know whether to throw it in there.

  • 12:17:31

    MARKAnd these packaging issues are alone a big issue for people who are trying to recycle but don't have the guidance on the product itself, maybe some sort of additional regulation on recycling would be appropriate.

  • 12:17:45

    NNAMDIYou began by saying, Mark, that there is no federal regulation on this, and that's where I like Walter Alcorn to pick up.

  • 12:17:52

    ALCORNYeah. It's a good point. I would say there is some very limited federal regulation, specifically as it relates to the export of cathode ray tube televisions and monitors, but that's very limited. It's very specific to that particular waste stream. And, frankly, I would agree with the caller. I think this is something that the federal government needs to be more involved with. I think what we've seen over the past several years is states picking up and implementing laws and creating requirements that, frankly, make it very difficult for manufacturers and retailers of electronics to comply. It's a complicated patchwork, if you will, of state mandates that is developing in this country.

  • 12:18:38

    ALCORNAnd so I think what we're now all coming to realize is that, yes, there definitely-- to solve these problems or this particular problem in any case, I think it will require some activity at the federal level.

  • 12:18:53

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on the big business of e-cycling. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. When you replace your old television with a new flat screen, what did you do with the old television set? 800-433-8850. Or simply go to our website,, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:21:02

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on the business of e-cycling. We're talking with Sarah Westervelt, stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network, which works to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis. She joins us from studios in Seattle. Joining us in our Washington studio is Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association. Your calls, of course, 800-433-8850. Do you have a drawer full of gadgets you don't know what to do with?

  • 12:21:31

    NNAMDIAre you concerned about where the electronics you've thrown away end up? Call us now, 800-433-8850. Walter, is it legal anywhere in the U.S. to throw electronics into a regular landfill?

  • 12:21:46

    ALCORNIt is not. It is probably -- I would say at this point, I don't have the exact number, but maybe in half the states there is legislation that restricts the ability to dispose of these electronics in solid waste landfills. So basically, in almost half the country, you really can't just throw it away. You do need to recycle these products. And I think what we're seeing is an increase in recycling activity at all levels. I think, certainly, in our industry, we have a lot of companies that are stepping up to make recycling easier. One that a lot of people know about is Best Buy.

  • 12:22:30

    ALCORNSo at all 1,200 of their stores across the country, consumers can come in and recycle electronics. And that's something we certainly support and hope to replicate throughout the industry.

  • 12:22:45

    NNAMDIMost counties and cities do have electronic waste disposal. Usually, you drop off your electronics on specified days. What happens to it then?

  • 12:22:54

    ALCORNWell, that's up to the locality. The local governments, who are operating those events, typically will contract with the recycler and will basically determine what type of recycler to hire. Those are -- I think we've seen some evolution recently in the types of recyclers that are looking to do that kind of -- that type of business and localities that are looking to hire those types of recyclers. What's new is the development of third-party certification systems that I know Sarah is very familiar with.

  • 12:23:33

    ALCORNAnd these new systems are, for the first time, creating a floor for recycler conduct. And this is a big step. This is something we certainly support as the consumer electronics industry. And we think it'll really, hopefully, begin to make a difference in the recycling activities that are done outside of our industry.

  • 12:23:55

    NNAMDISarah Westervelt, do we know where that e-waste really goes? And tell us a little more about the third-party recycling systems.

  • 12:24:02

    WESTERVELTWell, let me answer your first question first, Kojo. Right now, and really for the last few decades, it's pretty much anything goes in the United States, and there is increasing awareness, but essentially with very few regulations covering this waste stream. And the United States, being the only developed country that has not ratified a United Nations treaty called the Basel Convention, which tries to prevent or restrict hazardous waste from being dumped on developing countries, it is really up to, as Walter said, up to the local jurisdictions or up to the businesses in the United States to decide what to do with this material if it is collected. And it is going all over the place.

  • 12:24:44

    WESTERVELTAnd you started off, talking about cell phones, in particular, but cell phones are particularly problematic because they are -- they tend to be exported in very, very large volumes -- there are no laws against that here in the United States -- and exported untested or non-working perhaps. Some of them would work, and some of them would not. And they are almost always going to developing countries, and usually it's African countries or Asian countries or South American countries, and they're typically going for "reuse," whether they're functional or not. The problem is that cell phones, along with all the other electronics, tend to have all these toxins. They tend to be near end of life even if they get refurbished in the developing country.

  • 12:25:37

    WESTERVELTThey're gonna be usually pulling out the bad parts frequently, which are hazardous materials such as bad batteries or bad circuit boards or bad mercury lamps that light up the LCD screens. And so you're transferring those hazardous wastes to the developing countries. And then that new -- that refurbished phone or that refurbished flat screen or whatever it is may have another few years of life left in it, but then it dies in the global South. And that may be convenient and actually profitable for the United States, but it's -- and it protects our citizens, but it really is transferring the problem, the hazardous waste problem, to the developing countries.

  • 12:26:15

    WESTERVELTAnd many of these countries have no recycling facilities whatsoever or very limited recycling facilities, for example, big smelters, where they can actually reclaim the metal. So we -- it's actually devastating in terms of metals reclamation and trying to prevent mining of more materials. But it's even more devastating because these hazardous products end up either being thrown out into the waysides or worse than that, typically, they're burned. And when you are using acid baths, for example, to try to precipitate out a little bit of gold and then dumping very toxic acids directly into rivers.

  • 12:26:59

    WESTERVELTBut more often than not, this waste stream is burned. And in order to reclaim the copper core inside the wires or pull various metals out of the waste since it's all integrated together, it -- those -- that sort of burning has just a long-term impact on these countries because it actually creates new additional toxins. When you burn the cables in our electronic devices, they typically are releasing halogenated dioxins and furans, which are some of the most toxic substances known to human kind.

  • 12:27:37

    WESTERVELTSo what we have is a situation where the United States, with very few regulations, is -- has been in the habit of selling these hazardous waste streams to developing countries. We make money off of it. We get it out of our hair. And, in fact, people there are perhaps refurbishing it, creating waste in that process, reusing the products for a little while and then ending up with these toxic products and typically burning them. So we have a -- we've got a very, very significant global problem.

  • 12:28:09

    WESTERVELTOne of the things that we did when we were in Guiyu, China, in the Guangdong province, a number of years ago, was to take a water sample in one of the rivers where they were actually using these acid baths to reclaim metals out of circuit boards, and we found water that had lead in the water at 2,400 times higher than the limits, the World Health Organization limits for lead in drinking water. Just stunning, stunning amounts of elements that are going out into the ecosystem there, which many of you probably know that these elements such as lead and cadmium are permanent. They're immortal.

  • 12:28:49

    WESTERVELTThey don't ever go away. And so they travel down the rivers and into the oceans and up into the atmosphere as they burn this material. So it's our entire planetary system that's receiving these extraordinary levels of immortal elements and persistent bioaccumulative chemicals because they are transported.

  • 12:29:11

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Sarah Westervelt. She is the stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network, which works to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis. She joins us from studios in Seattle. Joining us in our Washington, D.C. studio is Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association. And speaking about where all of these stuff goes, joining us now by telephone is Elizabeth Wilmot, president and founder of Turtle Wings in the Washington area, which advertises itself as globally beneficial recycling and reuse of electronics. Elizabeth Wilmot, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:29:48

    MS. ELIZABETH WILMOTWell it's nice to talk to you again, Kojo.

  • 12:29:50


  • 12:29:50

    WILMOTWe've seen you at our facility when you've come to drop off your electronics for recycling.

  • 12:29:54

    NNAMDIIndeed, which is why I knew where to call when I wanted somebody to talk on this show about where this stuff actually goes. Walk us through what happens when a customer drops off, for example, a computer for recycling? What happens to it from there?

  • 12:30:06

    WILMOTWell, sure. And -- but let me just backtrack. We have always been very concerned about what happens to the electronics on the downstream side.

  • 12:30:16


  • 12:30:16

    WILMOTAnd the EPA did indeed -- they have actually set out regulations -- they call them the R2 regulations -- and named -- I think it's five or six materials that they called their focus materials that they're very concerned about, which include batteries, circuit boards, CRTs. They have concern about ink toner, about all of those things, about where they go to. And as Walter said, there's an increasing number of people who are getting certified. And we indeed are ISO 14001 certified with the R2 guidelines as our -- that's our environmental policy is to follow all those guidelines.

  • 12:30:57

    WILMOTSo what happens is that somebody comes to our facility to drop stuff off or we send our trucks out to pick it up. And depending on who the customer is and what their guidelines are, it comes into our facility, and it gets immediately triaged. If it's something that can be refurbished, we -- it will then go on from us to a refurbisher. There is -- companies, for whatever reason, and they have a P4 that doesn't work for them, a computer, and we can send it on to a refurbisher who can refurbish it, put a new hard drive in it, you know, do whatever needs to be done to fix it and put it back into circulation.

  • 12:31:43

    WILMOTThat's always our goal because we feel the best recycling is to reuse stream. But some customers don't want that, and a lot of stuff is so old that's it's not possible to have that happen. In that case, the things that come into our facility get broken down to a component level. We have -- we use -- we're a HUBZone company here in the Washington area, so we use mostly manual labor. And we break things down to component level, sort it into gaylord boxes, and then it gets shipped off to our re-processors. However, before it gets shipped off to a re-processor, all our re-processors are thoroughly vetted by a site visit we go, and we see who they are.

  • 12:32:29

    WILMOTYou know, Sarah is correct, you know, where the metals can be recaptured if you send them all to, you know, a certified smelting company here in the states. Our CRTs, the glass is processed, you know, here in the United States. And you, sort of, alluded to some of the take-back programs that happen on some of the state levels. And we've never participated in any of that because they've been interested in using a recycler who is going to provide those services for the lowest fee. And, typically, the recycler, who is going to provide those services for the lowest fee is probably not at...

  • 12:33:08

    NNAMDIUh-oh. Elizabeth Wilmot, we seemed to have lost you. We'll try to get Elizabeth Wilmot back because I really wanted to ask her about what happens to the electronic waste that cannot indeed be recycled. What happens with that? So, Elizabeth Wilmot, call us back. And if you like to join the conversation, the number to call is 800-433-8850. Or you can send us email to

  • 12:33:32

    NNAMDIWe're talking about the big business of e-cycling with Sarah Westervelt, stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network. Walter Alcorn is the vice president of Environmental Affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association. And joining us now from NPR West Studios in Los Angeles is Ismail Oyekan, who is the publisher of the Electronic Waste Journal. Ismail, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:33:57

    MR. ISMAIL OYEKANThank you for having me.

  • 12:33:58

    NNAMDIIsmail, we may only recycle a fraction of our electronics as of right now, but that fraction is big business now. What kind of growth is there in e-waste recovery?

  • 12:34:11

    OYEKANIt's a good question. Well, the e-waste management industry is a very lucrative multi-billion dollar industry. I mean, if you look at it from the perspective of the value of the materials that are generated from end-of-life electronics, including computers, IT assets like cell phones and servers, you know, it's no longer a secret that these materials contain valuable commodities like gold, copper, silver and -- Sarah is also right. There are a lot of toxic materials out there. So, in a perfect world, if we can eliminate these toxic materials where we have a very valuable precious metals that obviously have a very high value -- there was a recent research report done that stated that the value of those materials to be in about $14 billion.

  • 12:34:55

    OYEKANIn California alone, where I reside, there are over 700 companies that participate in the state-funded SB20/SB50 program that pays recyclers to collect CRTs and computers from ending up in landfills and pay as much as 38 cents a pound. So the truth is it's big business, but it's a very technical business. And now that the certification been introduced, people are learning how to do it right.

  • 12:35:19

    NNAMDISarah, there has been some progress in terms of the number of states that have lost on handling e-waste, hasn't there?

  • 12:35:28

    WESTERVELTThere has been some progress. I think states are frustrated that there hasn't been a federal solution that would solve this problem. And I think the latest number is somewhere up around 29, 24 or 29 states have passed bills or working on bills. But, of course, they all look a little bit different. Unlike what's happening across the 27 European Union nations where they have a single directive, EU directive, for electronic waste that requires the manufacturers to take back all of their products when customers are done with them and take them back free of charge and very conveniently. On top of that, Europe has ratified this United Nation's Basel Convention as well as a separate amendment to the Basel Convention.

  • 12:36:16

    WESTERVELTSo they're not allowed to export their hazardous waste to developing countries based on these laws. The problem with our U.S. states passing laws is that states have no authority to restrict export. So you may have very well intentioned states like here in Washington State that really wanted to be able to not only collect this material from the public but also to make sure that it did not end up in developing countries. And yet they have no legal right to do that. So that's one of the reasons why we've worked hard, the environmental community, along with leaders in the industry to develop a certification program called the e-Stewards Certification. And now, some states even are calling for recyclers to become certified to the e-Stewards standard.

  • 12:37:04

    WESTERVELTAnd that standard essentially is based on this United Nation's treaty. So even though the United States hasn't ratified it, most other nations have -- 175 other countries have. And this e-Stewards standard, basically, says that the recycler, in whatever country they're located in, will keep the toxic materials out of developing countries, out of landfills and incinerators and also out of prison recycling operations throughout the entire recycling chain all the way to final disposition. So I think the United States seems to be going the route of this voluntary certification programs rather than creating a federal bill.

  • 12:37:46

    NNAMDIIndeed we got an email -- well, this is an email quoting an article in The New York Times last October. "Inmates and employees at 10 federal prisons were exposed to toxic metals and other hazardous substances while processing electronic waste for recycling, a four-year investigation found that the investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general," just underscoring a little bit of what Sarah said.

  • 12:38:12

    NNAMDIBut joining us -- rejoining us by telephone is Elizabeth Wilmot, president and founder of Turtle Wings. Her call dropped off a little while ago before I got the opportunity to ask you, Elizabeth, that a lot of recycling company websites say they responsibly dispose of electronic waste that can't be recycled. What actually happens to those components?

  • 12:38:34

    WILMOTThank you, Kojo. Did you guys hear anything that I said before?

  • 12:38:36

    NNAMDIYes, we heard everything that you said before.

  • 12:38:38

    WILMOTOkay. And then it's just left after I'm...

  • 12:38:41

    NNAMDIYes, just the last part.

  • 12:38:43

    WILMOTOkay. So tell me the question again.

  • 12:38:46

    NNAMDIThe question is that a lot of company websites say that they responsibly dispose of electronic waste that cannot be recycled. What actually happens to those components?

  • 12:38:56

    WILMOTWell, the components, you know, from...

  • 12:38:58

    NNAMDIThat can't be recycled...

  • 12:39:00

    WILMOTYes -- from our facility and I can't speak for all of the other facilities out there. But as I stated, our facility is -- we're ISO 14001 certified along the R2 guidelines. And so they go from us to a re-processor. And essentially, they are either reused in some other manufacturing process or they're stripped down from where we've gotten them to down to a further level. And then, like the metal is re-smelted to make, you know, a further alloy. You know, the circuit boards go to a place that pulls out that, you know, who -- by smelting process, pulls out the component metals that make up a circuit board.

  • 12:39:46

    NNAMDIOkay. Got that. Elizabeth Wilmot is president and founder of Turtle Wings, which advertises itself as globally beneficial recycling and reuse of electronics. Elizabeth Wilmot, thank you so much for joining us. Walter Alcorn, most recent legislation is saying that manufacturers are responsible. Tell us about extended producer responsibility.

  • 12:40:08

    ALCORNSure. It -- It's a concept that's relatively new to the United States. As Sarah mentioned earlier, it's been implemented in various forms in other countries, particularly in Europe. And the concept is that a manufacturer of a product is not -- their responsibility doesn't end once the product is sold, that actually once the product is done, it's -- when it's been used and is ready for recycling, or some other disposal, then the manufacturer does have some responsibility at that point. So this is -- it's a little bit different for us here in the States because typically, you know, when you own a property and you transfer a property to somebody else, that's it, and then it's somebody else's problem.

  • 12:40:55

    ALCORNBut what we've seen is a movement towards producer responsibility in the U.S., specifically for electronics. We've also seen it in other products like rechargeable batteries. The paint industry is getting very active in terms of setting up systems for collection of paint, and it's an interesting process. I think one thing that I wanna make sure everyone understands, as we get into this producer responsibility framework, then what it does do is it does put manufacturers at a greater level of responsibility, but not only for taking back their own products, but really for the system overall in terms of how electronics are brought back.

  • 12:41:46

    ALCORNAnd it's such a big job, like I mentioned earlier. These electronic products are so widely distributed that it requires a lot of partners, a lot of collaborators at the local government level with retailers, with others. So it's a big challenge and it's something that we're working on every day.

  • 12:42:03

    NNAMDIGot to take a break. But when we come back, we'll return to this issue of manufacturer responsibility and how manufacturers are dealing with that. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking about the business of e-cycling and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. You can also send email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:44:12

    NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation about the business of e-cycling. We're talking with Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association, CEA. Sarah Westervelt is the e-stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network, BAN. And Ismail Oyekan is the publisher of the Electronic Waste Journal. Ismail, nearly half the states have recently passed laws related to extended producer responsibility. In general, what does a law like that require and how is it enforced?

  • 12:44:46

    OYEKANGood question. There are now 25 states, and I believe Utah was the last one that just recently signed -- put into legislator some sort of e-waste recycling initiative from a state level. The fundamental difference between all of them is most of these states require manufacturers to take the lead on responsibility. But here in California, when I go to a Best Buy or a retailer and I buy an LCD or a computer, I'm charged an advance recycling fee. And that money goes into a pool of funds that actually allow -- allows the states to fund the electronic recycling industry, so there is that fundamental difference between the advance recycling fee and the extended producer responsibility.

  • 12:45:27

    OYEKANAnd what it entails is very different from state to state. In fact, it's something we're still studying everyday to try to figure out, you know, who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong. However, it's creating jobs in the e-waste industry. And the truth is, this was -- these manufacturers are now being held responsible for the full life cycle of their products. Like Walter said earlier, it's not just about when you sell the product. They're also being held responsible for the product at its end of life. So the manufacturers are forming organizations like MRM Recycling, Manufacturers Recycling Manufacturer, which is a collaborative effort between the larger manufacturers like Samsung, Panasonic, to tackle this issue and be compliant with these laws.

  • 12:46:11

    OYEKANIt's also an issue of public relations forum. They wanna make sure that as consumers are more aware of the toxicity of e-waste that they know that, you know, the products of the manufacturer adhere with environmental standards and are not essentially dumping toxic materials in our landfills eventually.

  • 12:46:33

    NNAMDIHere is Mike in Vienna, Va. Mike, your turn.

  • 12:46:37

    MIKEYeah. Just a little comment. One of your guests mentioned before that Best Buy is a place to take your recyclables, your electronic recyclables. But a friend of mine tried to do that recently and they only accept computers. So if there is any other things, don't take it there.

  • 12:46:58

    NNAMDIIsmail, does that differ according to what jurisdiction you happen to be in or is that a nationwide policy?

  • 12:47:04

    MIKEWell, I have no idea.

  • 12:47:07

    NNAMDIWalter Alcorn.

  • 12:47:08

    ALCORNYeah. Actually, I'm not sure what happened in terms of the specific product that the consumer tried to bring back to Best Buy, but I know, personally, I've -- I dropped off an old HP multifunction device there. I actually -- I brought it into the Best Buy in Reston and actually found it easier to drop it off for recycling than to buy a new one. Literally walked in the door and they said put it right over there, and I did, and that was it. But one thing about the Best Buy program, if you're bringing in a cathode ray tube product, they do charge $10 for disposal, but they give you a $10 gift card that you can use in the store.

  • 12:47:49

    ALCORNSo there are -- there's a lot of variation out there in terms of specific requirements of collectors, so I guess the message is before you get in your car and you go somewhere, give them a call or look on their website, make sure that they do accept whatever it is that you're looking to recycle.

  • 12:48:06

    NNAMDIOkay, thank you for your call, Mike. Here is Ismail.

  • 12:48:06

    OYEKANI might just add some things to that. In addition to Best Buy, there are other outlets out there where people, consumers and the general public, can find out where to recycle electronic waste. One good resource is There's a database of drop-off locations all over the country where you can drop off your electronic waste of all types. Another one is Earth911 that provides a similar service.

  • 12:48:32

    OYEKANAnd they now have this on our digital -- on our smartphones, so you can easily look it up on your Apple iPhone or your Android-based phone or your BlackBerry, and find out what type of materials are accepted, if there are any fees, charge for accepting such materials. So that's another resource that's available,

  • 12:48:50

    NNAMDISarah Westervelt, your organization put in place a certification and auditing program last year for recyclers and companies that generate electronic waste. Tell us about that.

  • 12:49:02

    WESTERVELTWe did. The e-steward certification program is designed to make a very complex problem a lot simpler for customers who would like to recycle their materials. And essentially, we've spent 10 years studying this issue, working with the industry. We're knowledgeable about the international laws that pertain to trade in this waste stream. And we've come together with experts in health and safety, worker health and safety, as well as the recycling itself, to create a 50-page standard which is a voluntary program that uses the mainstream certification industry to assure customers that any particular recycler is actually in conformance with our standard.

  • 12:49:49

    WESTERVELTSo -- and people can go to to find a list of those recyclers that have already been certified or those who are -- have contracted with a certification body to become certified. But, essentially, it is the -- those companies who are willing to meet the very highest standard that we're aware of in the world, and we work globally and do a lot of international travel. And that standard, essentially, is designed to keep the toxic materials in the developed countries throughout final disposition.

  • 12:50:24

    WESTERVELTI think one of the things that's important to understand is that, for example, these producer responsibility programs and having retailers take back products is all very good. It's excellent that the retailers and manufacturers are now getting involved in becoming part of the solution because it really increases the convenience for the public. It's still a bit confusing, but there's now an expansion of the collection. The problem, though, is that if we collect more materials and we have no export restrictions in place, essentially what we're gonna be doing is increasing the amount of hazardous waste that we send off to developing countries.

  • 12:51:04

    WESTERVELTSo the real solution here lies in -- at this point, since there is no federal legislation that would literally shut off the floodgates to the developing countries, the solution is in using these certified recyclers, the e-Steward- certified recyclers who are committing to the -- this United Nations treaty that says developed countries may not ship their hazardous waste, as defined in the treaty, to the developing countries for any reason. So that would include sending circuit boards to smelters.

  • 12:51:36

    WESTERVELTU.S. has shut down all of its secondary smelters. And so we have to export for smelting. But on e-Steward, we'll keep that -- those circuit boards in the developed world only. So we definitely encourage the public. Because this is such a complex problem and the solutions are very, very complex, it's very hard to know what questions do I ask, what answers am I looking for and can I trust the recycler? Because there is so much money to be made doing the wrong thing.

  • 12:52:04

    NNAMDIWell, for starters, we've linked to all of the websites that Sarah Westervelt mentioned. You can find that at our website, Here's Walter Alcorn.

  • 12:52:12

    ALCORNThank you, Kojo. Yeah, just to follow up on Sarah's comment, I think it's important to note that the Consumer Electronics Association, we're gonna have an announcement tomorrow. We're gonna announce an initiative where we're gonna address not only the quantity of electronics recycled, but also the quality of the recycling and how it's done. I do share Sarah's concern. There has been a lot of recycling that's very shaky, and a lot of material does end up in these informal channels, where it is very much mismanaged.

  • 12:52:47

    ALCORNAnd Sarah's organization has done an excellent job documenting that in places like Guiyu, China and also in Africa. The point I would make -- and, again, with third-party certification systems that we talked about -- we definitely support implementation, full implementation of those systems. We think it's a very positive development. But I would point out that for the producer responsibility element here, as manufacturers become more involved, there's another twist to this, and that is these manufacturers are putting their names onto these recycling systems.

  • 12:53:23

    ALCORNSo when Dell takes back a product, for example, it has to make sure that the recycler that it's hired is doing the right thing and not shipping the stuff to places that'll get it on "60 Minutes." I mean, this is a business imperative that companies like the ones in the consumer electronics industry have to be very, very careful about who they use. And they just can't afford to do the wrong thing when it comes to getting a recycler that's gonna act this way like some of the things that Sarah mentioned.

  • 12:53:55

    NNAMDIIsmail, let's talk a little bit about the cell phone buy-back programs for a little longer. How much can an individual get for a cell phone through one of those programs?

  • 12:54:04

    OYEKANIt really depends on the cell phone. I mean, if you have a smartphone, it's more valuable from a reuse perspective than an older phone. From a metal content, phones primarily consist of their housing, which are mostly brominated plastic, mostly plastic. And then they have the circuit boards that are mostly made out of copper, gold, silver, platinum. But there's also a lot of toxic materials in there. And also the LCD. So these different parts have different values. And there are a lot of websites out there, like does that, GRC Wireless. EcoSquid is another company that comes to mind. Full Circle Wireless. In fact, there's a sub economy being created that buys back the billions of cell phones that we dispose of every 18 months or so, on average, in this country. So the value ranges. It could be anywhere from a dollar to well over $300 for a used cell phone.

  • 12:54:58

    NNAMDIBut once a cell phone goes into a buy-back program, walk us through what happens to that phone.

  • 12:55:03

    OYEKANIt varies. This is why there's a need for certification. I mean, truthfully, nobody knows. It's a case-by-case situation. In some scenarios, these phones are resold in the secondary market. In the best scenarios, the cell phone companies themselves are actually taking back these phones, refurbishing them and repurposing them to, you know, economically distressed communities. Obviously we all know there's been an increase in the amount of people that are using prepaid wireless service.

  • 12:55:31

    OYEKANSo it's reducing the hindrance -- it's reducing the cost of actually -- the cost of communication in third world countries, for example. And that's some of the positive benefits. But we also have to balance out the toxicity issue that is very, very dear to Sarah and the folks at Basel Action Network. So the truth is -- I mean, we're just trying to provide a platform for people to be aware of the good and the bad side of e-waste, or e-cycling, as you call it. But there's also a lot of opportunity out there. A lot of green jobs have been created by people that are making a business out of making sure these products don't end up in landfills.

  • 12:56:05

    NNAMDIHere is Selena in Washington, D.C. Selena, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:10

    SELENAHi. I'm so glad to be able to ask this question. I am -- just had an e-cycle that I organized at a local school here in D.C., Hearst Elementary School. We collected almost nine tons of electronic waste, and we took all of it to Fort Totten. And I was wondering if one of your guests could share with the listeners their feelings on UNICOR, which is where Fort Totten sends all of its electronics. It's a Pennsylvania -- this particular...

  • 12:56:39

    NNAMDIFor those of our listeners who are unfamiliar with Fort Totten in the Washington areas where the District of Columbia government authorizes people to take their recycling items, usually on the weekend, and our caller Selena wants to know exactly what UNICOR is or where its stuff goes. Walter Alcorn, do you have any idea?

  • 12:56:58

    ALCORNYeah. UNICOR is the -- actually it's a part of the federal government, and it's a prison labor-based recycling service. So they do have a facility in Pennsylvania. I'll just say that our members, the consumer electronics industry, do not use prison labor. I'm not aware of any company that's a manufacturer or a retailer of consumer electronics who hires a recycler that uses prison labor at this point.

  • 12:57:28

    NNAMDIWell, I should point out, as a member of the Fairfax County planning board. Is that correct?

  • 12:57:31

    ALCORNYes. The Planning Commission, that's my moonlighting hat.

  • 12:57:35

    NNAMDIAnd to find out how to dispose of your electronics -- Selena, I'm glad you called -- you can call or visit your city or county trash collection website, and you can find links at our website, I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Walter Alcorn is the vice president of environmental affairs for CEA, the Consumer Electronics Association. Walter, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:57:56

    ALCORNThank you.

  • 12:57:57

    NNAMDISarah Westervelt is the e-Stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network. Sarah Westervelt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:05

    WESTERVELTYou're very welcome. Thank you.

  • 12:58:06

    NNAMDIAnd Ismail Oyekan is the publisher of the Electronic Waste Journal. Ismail, thank you for finding your way to the microphone.

  • 12:58:14

    OYEKANThank you for having me.

  • 12:58:15

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows