December 27, 2008
E-waste recycling

I've been aware of the issue for some time now, but it seems to me that this Chron story about electronic waste recycling fails to explore a pretty basic question.

It's Christmas morning, and there beneath the tree was your new television, sleek and digital. Or maybe it was a new computer. Or the newest electronic gee-whiz gadget. All well and good, but what are you going to do with the old equipment it replaces?

Most people -- about 88 percent according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- simply toss so-called e-waste into the trash.

Given the heavy metals and other toxic substances such equipment contains, that's obviously a bad idea, says the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a national consortium of environmental and consumer groups. But, in some cases, doing the seemingly responsible thing -- hauling outmoded equipment to a recycler -- is as bad as junking it, warned Barbara Kyle, the group's national coordinator.

Often, she said, "recycled" electronics are shipped to processors in developing countries, who use primitive techniques to extract valuable metals.

"All of these plastic casings of TVs and computers contain brominated flame retardants," Kyle said. "When they are exported to these Third World countries, plastics typically get burned. And when burned, they emit dioxins, one of the most potent toxins. This often is done right next to where people are working and living."


Kyle said her organization advocates television and computer makers taking the lead in providing recycling services for e-waste.

You know, there's another entity involved in the recycling process that's a pretty big player, and which could exercise some real influence on practices like these. I'm talking about cities, which run large-sized recycling programs that often include electronic waste. The city of Houston, for example, collects e-waste at the Westpark Consumer Recycling Center as well as the South and North Environmental Service Centers. You would think that in an article like this, one would want to mention what happens to the old TVs, computers, stereos, and whatnot that people bring in for recycling, but you would apparently be wrong. I don't know the reason for the oversight, but I do know that I'd like an answer to the question. Are we contributing to the problem by taking our old electronics to the city service centers or not? I don't think that's too much to ask.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 27, 2008 to Technology, science, and math

You are correct -- municipal governments throughout Texas do collect mountains of electronic waste. Each city or county must then decide on a recycling partner, and as you might guess, cities and counties must usually go with the lowest bidder. As you might also guess, the lowest bidder is in many cases a company that exports e-waste overseas, since this shameful practice is currently more lucrative than real recycling.

So far as Houston's recycling efforts go, the picture is cloudy. If a recycler is listed as an "E-Steward" then we can be sure they are not exporting. As the article mentions, there are no E-Stewards in Houston. However, if they are not E-Stewards, that doesn't mean they are exporting -- it just means we can't be sure they aren't. And we the taxpayers are paying for it whether it's really recycling or not.

This touches on the heart of the issue. Even if none of the e-waste Houston collects is exported, the companies that design and sell electronics have no concern for where they might end up. Instead, the manufacturers should be responsible for the entire life of their products. Producers should be accountable for what happens to their toxic electronic waste, not local governments and taxpayers.

Texas passed such a law to cover computer equipment in the 2007 session. Although its provisions to stop export were lacking, now all computer manufacturers selling products in Texas must offer free recycling. You can see the results so far at We have also been successful in convincing several TV makers to offer recycling. Visit for more on how to recycle your e-waste in Houston. We urge people to make use of the manufacturer recycling programs whenever possible.

Texas Campaign for the Environment will be pressuring lawmakers to strengthen this law and extend it to cover other e-waste, such as TVs. We are also working with U.S. Congress member Gene Green on federal legislation to stop export. We make progress by building broad community support and public pressure to hold our lawmakers accountable. Visit for more on this issue.

Zac Trahan
Houston Program Director
Texas Campaign for the Environment

Posted by: Zac Trahan on December 30, 2008 9:09 PM
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