The United States leads the world’s major economies in generating electronic waste. Americans throw out 66 pounds a year per person, according to a first-ever global map recently released by the United Nations. Computer-related electronics, televisions, monitors, cellphones, and iPods, along with small home appliances such as toasters, radios, clocks, and hair dryers, together constitute the world’s fastest growing waste stream. Yet even though these devices often contain hazardous materials as well as valuable reusable ones, neither manufacturers nor regulators have made adequate provision for what to do with them at the end of their useful life.
There is no federal regulation of electronic waste, and only half of the states have systematic e-waste recycling programs. Massachusetts is not among them. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, only 62 million of the Commonwealth’s 382 million pounds of e-waste was recycled in 2011. The rest goes into landfills or waste combustion facilities. Or it leaves the country for the developing world, likely ending up in dumps where families wade through toxic soup and fumes to extract the metals.
In short, our waste-disposal chain hasn’t kept up with the ubiquity of electronics in today’s homes and workplaces. “We have a robust system for white goods, refrigerators, washers, dryers, things that have a lot of steel,” said MIT researcher Jeremy Gregory, coauthor of a paper released in conjunction with the UN report. “It makes sense that we devise one for electronics.”
On Beacon Hill, a bill that has made its way up to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, sponsored by Taunton Democrat Marc Pacheco, would require electronics manufacturers to establish and pay for recycling programs for televisions, computers, laptops, monitors, and printers. Supporters hope the bill will lead to the collection of 6 pounds per capita of e-waste — a rate that would rival the best in the nation.