Toussaint column: No ‘away,’ but there is Western Slope Recycling
April 26, 2018
Our handyman, Tim, warned us we'd have to pay a fee when he took our defunct microwave "away" to the dump.
That worried me, because in environmental terms, there's no such place as "away." The earth is a closed loop system. Because so little can get in or out, mankind's junk isn't leaving. Check out http://www.stuffin.space and you can see more than 100,000 manmade objects, many defunct, orbiting the earth in real time.
Manmade junk amounts to a huge problem: Mount Everest is littered with thawing fecal matter and discarded climbing gear. The Great Lakes are awash in microfibers from fleece. The Pacific Ocean's garbage vortex is now twice the size of Texas.
The U.S. exports 80 percent of its old electronics to developing countries. For example, in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, barefoot children mine tons of e-waste at a gargantuan dump locally termed "Sodom and Gomorah." They're looking for computers and cellphones so their parents can burn the plastic and drench the circuit boards in cyanide to extract gold. Their efforts may also bring them asthma, pneumonitis, tremors, neuropsychiatric problems, convulsions, coma, even death. Still, as a recent World Bank Group white paper noted, at least 15 million people worldwide survive by recycling dangerous e-waste. "Many poor people, faced with a choice between starving or waste-picking, choose the latter."
But it's not just the poor who prowl e-dumps. It's also thieves. Smart devices that have been sent "away" can come back to haunt us in the form of identity theft. That's why there's an old computer lying in the crawl space under my house. It's nearly impossible to truly scrub personal data off of e-devices.
For personal as well as health and environmental reasons, I don't want my discarded devices added to some malignant midden in Asia or Africa. So I worried for weeks about where Tim took that microwave.
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It's increasingly difficult to send junk away to places like Ghana, India and China.
This January, China enacted a new law barring the import of plastic, mixed paper, old clothing and other materials from American recycling programs. The problem isn't just that badly sorted recycling often contains toxic waste. It's also that China, which imported $5.6 billion in U.S. scrap in 2016, is now producing its own electronic products—and its own electronic waste.
The most available choices for dealing with the worldwide trash problem involve local efforts. A good example comes from Mumbai, where about 80 baby Olive Ridley turtles recently scuttled across a beach into the Arabian Sea. Five years ago, they wouldn't have made it one foot. With garbage piled five feet deep in places, Versova Beach ranked as one the world's most polluted oceanfronts.
Then, in 2015, Mumbai lawyer Afroz Shah launched recruited volunteers who worked every weekend for two years removing a staggering 5,000 tons of litter in what the U.N. termed the world's largest beach clean-up.
There might be some good tidings for the Pacific garbage patch. In 2016, Japanese researchers discovered a bacteria that can eat non-biodegradable plastic. This spring, an international research team led by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory — yes, the folks in Boulder — discovered an Ideonella sakaiensis variant that can break down those ubiquitous polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic water bottles. That moves scientists closer to solving the titanic problem of discarded plastics that take centuries to biodegrade.
There might even be hope for e-waste. Manufacturers in China, India and other developing countries are starting to view e-scrap as a valuable commodity. In recent years, the rising demand for, and value of, the "rare earth" elements used in laptops and cellphones has risen, placing the cost of recycling closer to mining. Policies encouraging sustainable "harvesting" of rare and valuable raw materials have already been adopted in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.
There's also some good news about local recycling. It's growing.
Seven years ago, a recycling professional I met at networking event told me that virtually nothing got recycled on Colorado's Western Slope. Because we didn't have local recycling facilities, everything had to be trucked over the passes to Denver. For most of our junk, that's just too far away to be economical.
Hence my concern about trashing that microwave.
When I asked Tim whether it wound up in what's euphemistically called a "landfill," he said, "No." He took it to Trinity Recycling, which serves the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys from Gypsum and Glenwood Springs. Trinity disassembles appliances, metal sheds and filing cabinets, copper pipes and wires, cars, trucks and even old radiators and recycles the metals locally.
That's better news than I was expecting, so I think I will just put that rant about why that three-year-old microwave couldn't be fixed away for another column, another day.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.