Committee on Science and Technology
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Op-Eds :: November 23, 2008

Innovation that Gave Us Our Gadgets Needed to Help Safely Recycle Them [Gordon]

This ran in The Tennessean on November 23, 2008

Copyright 2008


The electronics industry is advancing at breakneck speed. There's always a newer, faster, smaller cell phone, handheld device or MP3 player.

Families may be thinking of replacing their old television set ahead of the conversion to digital TV this February. If we're lucky enough to get a new TV, computer, MP3 player or cell phone, it begs the question: What do we do with the old one?

A lot of them are collecting dust in our attics, closets and junk drawers because we don't know what to do with them.

Some of the 2 million tons of electronic waste — or e-waste — the U.S. generates every year end up in our landfills. This isn't much better than the closet. Besides the toxic chemicals that may seep into the soil and water, electronics contain valuable metals. Scrap electronics are a richer source of gold, copper and silver than the minerals we mine out of the ground. It just doesn't make sense to put gold in the dump. 

Some e-waste, about 15 to 20 percent, is recycled. While we need to increase how much e-waste is recycled, we also need to improve how this recycling happens. Right now, it is often sent to developing countries where unprotected workers — often children — use dangerous methods to recover the valuable materials. Clearly, we need a better solution. 


Invest in green technology 

So how do we make it easier and safer to recycle e-waste? 

There are a few barriers to overcome: We need to make it easier for recyclers to take the electronics apart; we need to make it easier to sort and process the components; and we need to figure out what to do with the toxic materials and tons of leaded glass removed from old televisions and monitors. It would also be helpful to figure out if there's a way to extend the life of the electronics, so they do not need to be replaced as often. 

To figure out how to overcome these barriers, we need to invest in research in recycling technology, alternative materials and greener design for electronics that allow for more efficient recycling. This research will allow us to create an effective e-waste policy at the federal level that supports the efforts of forward-looking states like Tennessee. 

Technology and innovation will have as much a role to play in solving the problem of e-waste as they did in its creation. We don't want to stifle the innovation that has put the computing power of a room-sized mainframe into the palm of our hand. We just need the facts and the foresight to ensure today's modern marvels don't become tomorrow's environmental mess.

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Bart Gordon, Chairman


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