The gunk in electronic junk

Plans are afoot to recycle our masses of harmful e-waste.

computer cartoon 88 (photo credit: )
computer cartoon 88
(photo credit: )
All the world is screaming gevalt, but in Israel electronic waste is being treated like every other kind of garbage," says Vered Doctori Blass of Ra'anana, who is studying how Americans are dealing with the way electronic products are produced, sold, reused and recycled. If it plugs into the wall, chances are it contains electronic waste, says Blass. "All electronic products contain deadly chemicals. Whether it is one product or another, it is just a matter of concentration." To date, Israel has no standards for the way electronic waste (or e-waste) is disposed. Old computer monitors, printers, phones, fluorescent bulbs, electronic toys and toasters all contain hazardous chemicals. These toxins end up as gases or seep into the soil and penetrate our water sources. According to the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) some 100,000 tons of old computers and e-waste is buried in Israeli landfill sites every year. Some of it goes to the Negev, near the Sea of Galilee or to a third landfill site in the Upper Galilee. "E-waste has become a big issue in the past few years," says Blass, "but in Israel people are completely unaware of what is going on, unlike in the US and Europe. It's the manufacturers that are pushing the people, and our consumption of electronics is out of control," she says. Blass moved to the States to soak up knowledge about e-waste, and plans to take this information home to Israel in three years when she finishes her doctorate. She is studying at the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, a school that teaches industrial ecology, a field missing in Israeli universities, she says. "My goal is to improve environmental performance within companies. To help Israeli companies understand the [environmental] language in economic terms. Companies are looking into performance indicators other than just economic ones. If investors require a company to be environmentally conscious, then the companies will change." Gilad Ostrovsky, a recycling specialist for the IUED, is the Israeli expert on e-waste, says Blass. Ostrovsky is working on getting the Ministry of the Environment to comply with directives adopted by the EU called waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). "One of the main problems with e-waste build-up is that the selling graph is growing - and so are the garbage dumps. The increase of solid waste is much worse when talking about e-waste," says Ostrovsky. "We need to treat this stream of waste differently because it is not like other kinds of garbage. Chemicals in e-waste can manifest as polluting gas or enter groundwater. These are very hazardous. Chemicals like lead, cadmium, zinc and cobalt are very risky and can lead to problems such as birth defects," he notes. Blass and Ostrovsky agree that Israel should follow the WEEE groundwork laid by the EU. The directives state that electronics manufacturers need to recycle 80% of all goods sold. That means for every 100 computers manufactured, a company will need to reclaim 80 computers from customers or other sources. Hardware manufacturers Dell and HP, reports Blass, are complying with these strict guidelines in Europe. Ostrovsky is still working on getting e-waste recognized as a problem in Israel and has petitioned the High Court to make the Environment Ministry adopt the EU guidelines. He wants the emphasis to be on producer responsibility as it is in Europe. "The Environment Ministry didn't like it," reports Ostrovsky. "They said there is not enough manpower and it is not a big issue. We are still waiting for the High Court decision." Manufacturers prefer to make electronics disposable rather than fix them, says Ostrovsky. "We need to use our electronic equipment so it lasts longer. E-waste is undergoing a big revolution, and directives are being implemented in Europe under the WEEE. If Israel adopts them, maybe then our cordless phones will work for five years instead of half a month. Companies will offer service instead of new products because it will be expensive for them to collect and recycle old products." In the meantime, Ostrovsky is advocating that consumers recycle their own e-waste - old microwaves, telephones, TVs and computers - at one of three Tel Aviv e-waste drop-off stations: on Rehov Hatriah next to the Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa; Rehov Habarzel in Hadar Yossef ; and Rehov Solalim (off Derech Hashalom). "I was told that the plan has not yet started, but the city has published the drop-off locations and they should be working very soon," he notes. The city is also planning to carry out a street collection and will notify people that on certain days, heavy electronics such as refrigerators and washing machines can be left out on the streets for a no-charge pick-up. It is suggested to call the municipal information line (106) for the latest information. Some industrious Israeli citizens and groups have decided to take e-waste initiatives into their own hands. Yisrael Lipschitz from Petah Tikva is a technical support engineer. He first thought about recycling computer waste while working for a Tel Aviv company contracted by the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. "While setting up a computer network in the basement, I saw dozens and dozens of computers on the floor," says Lipschitz, who suggested to administrative staff at the court to donate them to schools. "They told me that if they donated them to schools, then the court would need to set up a committee, and there would be problems deciding which schools would get what." "I would rather let them die here," is what Lipschitz was told by a staff member at the court. Lipschitz decided to take matters into his own hands. Wires were removed and keyboards and phones were shuttled to nursery schools for use at playtime. Computer monitors and other electronics were donated to stores like IKEA, where they were used for display. "I contacted Ikea's internal decorator, who thought I was crazy for giving her the stuff for free. But I had one condition: that she come and get it. It worked out well," he says. Shmuel Meyer, a computer technician, offered on a Tel Aviv newsgroup to set up a gemach for used computers in Jerusalem. He has outgrown the last place he had been operating out of and says that besides helping people, he is keeping computers and parts out of the garbage. "I gather used systems and parts and put together working computers. These refurbished computers are then donated to needy individuals and organizations. This includes people who are trying to get on their feet financially by opening a home business, sick children and various charity organizations," Meyer explains. One organization is aiming to not only keep computer junk out of landfill, but it is also training young people how to fix and enjoy computers that many could not afford to buy. Computers are collected from donations, and young people are given a training course, at the end of which they get to take a previously broken computer home. The Machshev Mekol Halev ('Computers from the Heart,' project started in Alfe Menashe and has grown to serve about 15 locations in the country. "The best thing with e-waste," concludes Ostrovsky, "is that when it gets old, it is still functioning. These old computers are being delivered to organizations for young people who don't know how to use them and to families that can't afford them."