TOXIC TRASH. POISON PCS. We've seen the horror stories in the press about mountains of discarded electronics products overwhelming our landfills and creating massive public health problems. “E-waste” such as computers, cell phones and television sets may be the latest threat to our way of life.
E-waste advocates warn that toxic components in these products, such as lead and mercury, can harm human health. They paint a dire picture of environmental wreck and ruin if we don't do something immediately to stop the flow of discarded e-waste into landfills.
Of course, they are right that lead and mercury can be lethal if handled improperly. But are they correct when they say e-waste is hazardous and should not be landfilled?
At the recent RCRA National Conference, Tim Townsend, a professor in Environmental Science at the University of Florida, Gainesville, answered part of that question. He gave the results of tests using the Toxics Characteristics Leachate Procedure (TCLP) to analyze cathode ray tubes and other e-wastes for toxicity. TCLP is's test to determine if a waste is toxic and therefore a hazardous waste. As part of the test methodology, the Florida lab used an acid solution he described as the “worst case” for landfill leachate.
It was no surprise when the tested e-wastes often failed the TCLP for lead, but not for other toxic materials such as mercury. However, Townsend was careful to distinguish between whether e-waste was toxic under RCRA guidelines and whether e-waste disposal actually contributes to lead in landfill leachate.
During a question and answer session, N.C. Vasuki, CEO of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA) pointed out that DSWA tests “showed no impact of e-waste on landfill leachate.” Townsend responded by saying, “absolutely right, there is no compelling evidence.”
So, should we worry about e-waste? Lead's toxicity is well-known. But leads ability to migrate from a landfilled electronic product and become part of leachate is not. Townsend and his team at the University of Florida plan to run tests simulating landfill conditions. They are right to do so, but they also should run tests at operating landfills similar to those undertaken in Delaware.
Public and private sector landfill operators need to know if e-waste is a real public health issue or just the scare du jour. We need sound, scientific data on the health risks from landfilling e-waste so we can make the “e-right” decision on how to manage these products.
We also need to “design for the environment” and eliminate, whenever possible, the use of toxic materials when manufacturing products, and learn how to best collect and process electronic materials for recycling. But let's not ban e-waste disposal until we have sound data. Public sector budgets cannot afford new recycling mandates.
And let's stop the demagogic rhetoric about toxic trash. My favorite claim is that landfills “grind away” at e-waste and produce toxic byproducts. Glaciers grind, landfills just sit there. But then, demagoguery is the favored tool of those without science or data on their side.
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The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.