Thursday, September 30, 2010

Electronic Waste: What DePaul Should Do

In many of the DePaul web pages and information on green and sustainable practices the school shows a robust recycling program. Often it seems there are more blue and green bins then regular trashcans in our halls and classrooms. But electronic recycling, and electronic waste disposal, was lacking. Searching both DePaul’s website and Google reaches came up with no program or resources. So even if it does exist, it is not available for easy access to students and other University members. DePaul has a couple first steps towards e-waste management. First is a salvage program that brings in a small amount of revenue by selling functional equipment. Any property owned by the university or purchased with grants must be disposed of by procurement. So while this may stop some waste from the landfills, it is unclear how much of this is a prevention from university property being taken without accounting. As this is for campus property only, it does not service the students. Another small step in there is battery and cell phone collection, available to the general school population in four drop off locations in the Lincoln Park campus and one in the loop. Interestingly this is run out of the Health and Safety office, not Facilities, possibly because they recognize the possible hazards posed by these materials? So while there are a couple scattered programs, there is nowhere for students to take a broken vcr, old computer monitor, or TV.

Electronic waste is of particular importance because of the possible hazardous materials it contains, cadmium and lead for example. If thrown away improperly, these materials can contaminate landfills. E-waste has also gotten international attention as much of America’s e-waste has been shipped overseas to countries with lower environmental standards and is causing huge human health and environmental hazards. Watching an interview with photographer Edward Burtynsky last year he had some amazing photographs of mountains of switchboards and ancient women with baskets, not filled with food, but electronic pieces they are manually disassembling to remove tiny fragments of precious metals. The best solution is to reuse and refurbish electronics to keep them from reaching the waste stream. The next best is to make sure they are properly disposed and recycled.

The University of Colorado Boulder was number one on the Sierra Club’s college ranking and offers a series of programs to address e-waste. One smart idea is capturing the materials on move in and move out days. They have a “reusable items drive” to keep items out of the waste stream all together. These items are then donated to Habitat for Humanity. The University has also created a separate program, The Colorado Materials Exchange (COMEx), whose mission is to reduce the e-waste problem. They run an online electronic exchange message board, train businesses and institutions on how to reduce and reuse electronics and visit cities and towns throughout Colorado to hold e-waste workshops. The University of Colorado also received a grant from the EPA to conduct an e-waste research project to analyze the best practices for their school. Lastly, they hold computer roundups where the college community can drop off any electronics. Over 17 tons of computers were collected and 2.9 tons were tested and donated to non-profits.

Since DePaul has made a commitment to recycling, adding a e-waste program would be a natural fit. As the Colorado example shows there are many ways to approach the problem and it would be easy for DePaul to start with one activity, such as an electronic collection day each quarter. These programs could be easily advertised on all the current recycling bins, located in over 95% of DePaul facilities. DePaul seems to already care about the quality of vendors and contractors they hire based on the carpet installation selection based on labor practices we learned about in class, and their choice of a dining service that has a sustainable focus that I wrote about in my last blog. With this in mind, when DePaul makes the move to a starting a e-waste program, they would need to ensure not only that the electronics stay out of local landfills, but that they are salvaged, recycled or reused in a way that is safe for the environment and the people involved.

By Rebecca Dill
Photo: Edward Burtynsky
China Recycling #12,
Ewaste Sorting, Zeguo, Zhejiang Province, 2004


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