A May 6 article in The Guardian of Manchester, England, offers a chilling glimpse of massive toxic dumps in Ghana, where heaps of discarded computers, televisions and other electronic waste from the United States and Western Europe wind up. Thousands of tons of such trash—commonly called e-waste—are illegally shipped there from the developed world, laden with heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and lead. The high-tech trash also contains scraps of precious metals. Desperate for cash, poor inhabitants of Accra and other African cities—many of them children—sift through the dumps, burning the waste and pulling the pieces apart to extract the valuable fragments. The health hazard is appalling, and the problem has prompted international legislation restricting the shipping of e-waste—but clearly, it’s not always enforced.
That grim portrait underscores the fate of discarded electronics collected and shipped by disreputable merchants under the guise of “recycling.” But even digital junk headed for the local landfill carries the threat of leaching toxic chemicals into the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 80 to 85 percent of the 2 million tons of electronic trash generated nationwide in 2005 wound up in landfills. E-waste represents about 2 percent of the nation’s total waste stream, according to the EPA, but it accounts for 70 percent of our country’s hazardous waste.
So where is one to turn when it’s time to discard the cell phone that just snapped in half, the now-obsolete laptop, or the flash drive that holds way less data than the new one you just got on sale? Fortunately, there are a couple of local recycling options—and besides keeping your busted electronic junk from being shipped off to Ghana, they’re free.
The newest e-waste recycling drop is at Mobilia, the furniture shop on the corner of Haywood and Walnut streets in downtown Asheville. Store manager Erika Ferraby sent away for a “Technotrash Can” after learning about it from a retailer in New York City whom she describes as an “expert in sustainability.”
“So far, we haven’t had that many people use it,” she says. But she wants downtown residents and shoppers to be aware that they can utilize the service free of charge. The receptacle, which sits just inside the front entrance, is actually just a big cardboard box that will get sealed up and shipped to a company called GreenDisk once it’s full. GreenDisk is based outside Seattle, and according to company spokesperson April Jordan, 98 percent of what’s sent to the facility is either recycled or put directly back into use. “We rely on a network of nonprofits and recycling facilities in the States,” notes Jordan, adding that the company makes every effort to ensure that none of what’s collected gets shipped overseas. Still-functional computers are serviced and funneled to nonprofits or schools; cell phones are passed along to a re-manufacturing specialist; and plastics are ground up and re-molded, reappearing as auto parts or household appliances. Once-prized CDs that are now a source of embarrassment can also be tossed in the Technotrash Can.
Mobilia has also been making an effort to work with local artists who use reclaimed nonelectronic materials. “That’s the best way to do it,” says Ferraby. “It’s local, it’s reclaimed—you can’t get any greener.” Reclaimed roof tiles never looked so good on a bed frame, and a countertop made of compressed sunflower seeds has attracted a lot of attention. Another novel item is the solar-powered backpack, which generates enough power to charge a camera or cell phone battery.
Meanwhile, every Friday is electronics-recycling day at the Buncombe County landfill, which for staffer Kristy Smith means assisting a steady stream of county residents who’ve come to chuck their old televisions. “We get dozens and dozens of TVs every Friday,” she says. Buncombe County accepts electronics for recycling every Friday—except holidays—from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the landfill (85 Panther Branch Road). It’s free for individual county residents with identification.
From the landfill, the e-waste is shipped to 3RC EnviroStation, a recycling facility in Winston-Salem. There, according to a company spokesperson, nearly everything is broken down and put back into production.
To find out what you can recycle in Mobilia’s Technotrash Can, visit www.greendisk.com. To find out what can be recycled at the Buncombe County Landfill, visit www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/GenServices/solidwaste_recycling.htm