A couple of months ago I was working away at my desk while listening to a remarkable and deeply troubling story on Chicago's Public Radio's This American Life. An enormous area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is filling with plastic trash. Variously known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, this floating continent of plastic is the area of Texas - and the largest "landfill" in the world.

The garbage patch is an accidental problem with real consequences. It was formed and is sustained by the clockwise circular pattern of four prevailing ocean currents off the coasts of the Americas and Asia. The currents pick up debris and the vortex concentrates it similar to the way water spins down the drain. While historically this debris has biodegraded - decomposed by biological agents, such as bacteria - the garbage patch is accumulating vast quantities of plastic. Imagine the ever-growing Republic of Plastic floating around in the open ocean.

The main problem with plastic is that it doesn't biodegrade. Instead plastic is photodegradable - chemically broken down by light - into smaller and smaller pieces. Along the way, it can trap marine life or is consumed and enters the food chain. Any way you cut it, this is a nasty proposition made even more problematic because it's beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation, and is therefore out of sight and out of mind. And yet I can't seem to get it out of my head.

Closer to Home

A week or so later, I was out walking my dogs, and when we came upon a pile of computer gear stacked curbside beside a garbage can ready for pickup. There were several throwaways: a monitor, CPU, keyboard, printer and two portable phones discarded for good measure. This pile of electronic gadgets reminded me of that distant problem way out in the Pacific and got me wondering about a similar problem closer to home. What happens to all the electronic devices - the PCs, laptops, cell phones, PDAs and other devices that are so much a part of our business and personal lives? I set out to do a bit of exploring.

Electronic waste - colloquially known as e-waste - includes obsolete computers, monitors, cell phones, televisions, microwaves, digital cameras, portable electronic games, calculators, etc. E-waste is the fastest growing garbage stream in the world, and according to an Environmental Protection Agency estimate only 10 percent of the e-waste in the United States is recycled. Most of that effort derives from the leadership of 12 or 13 states, nonprofits and a small but growing number of socially responsible technology firms. The federal government has largely ignored the problem.

Disposal of e-waste is complicated because these devices contain lots of parts and materials, some of which are precious; others of which are hazardous.

Almost every component is built with some kind of toxin. Computer circuit boards contain lead and cadmium. Monitors' cathode ray tubes (CRTs) have lead, cadmium, phosphorus and barium. In fact, a large CRT may contain from 4 to 8 pounds of lead. Even cables are bad for the environment, because they're sprayed with flame retardants that can leach into the soil and groundwater. Let us not forget that most electronic gadgets are loaded with plastic that doesn't biodegrade.

To understand the scope of the problem where I live, I contacted the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which estimates that approximately 50 million pounds of e-waste ends up in landfills. This is a large figure for a state with a relatively small population base of 3.7 million residents. It makes me wonder what the numbers are like for California, New York state, Florida and Texas, and what is being done to address the e-waste problem in those states.

 

Beginning to Mobilize

The Oregon Legislature enacted House Bill 2626 in 2007 to create and finance a statewide collection, transportation and recycling system for the convenient and environmentally safe recycling of covered electronic devices (CEDs). CEDs include TVs, desktop and portable computers, and computer monitors. Cell phones, fax machines and printers are not included in that group.

The Oregon e-waste collection and recycling system is financed by manufacturers. Households, businesses and not-for-profit organizations that employ 10 or fewer people, and anyone (including corporations) giving seven or fewer CEDs to a collector at any one time may use the new system free of charge. The system must provide convenient electronics recycling in every county, including at least one collection site in every city with a population of 10,000 or more. This program begins Jan. 1, 2009.

Credit Where Credit is Due

I recently purchased a new Macintosh notebook for my daughter, and we sent her six-year-old PC to Apple for disposal through the company's recycling program. Other leading vendors are doing the same. Dell recently initiated a program that will recycle anyone's PC regardless of the manufacturer. HP will recycle any manufacturer's hardware for a small fee. Gateway provides cash for end-of-life PC and peripherals with proof-of-purchase of a new Gateway machine.

My cell phone provider, Verizon, along with some of its competitors also recycle. It even reaches into consumable items, like printer cartridges. My provider, HP, includes a postage-paid return envelope to take back used printer cartridges. I am not sure if they are reconditioning and refilling these, but if so, it's all good by me.

I also want to recognize a local recycler and retailer of used electronic gear called Free Geek. This nonprofit firm's mission is twofold: to reduce waste by encouraging reuse and recycling, and to provide reconditioned gear at accessibly low prices. (Its tagline is "Helping the Needy Get Nerdy Since the Beginning of the Third Millennium.") I like these folks and recycle my electronics there whenever I can. Its Web site provides a list of similar enterprises around the country that is worth a look, http://freegeek.org/recyclelink.php.

CIOs Play an Important Role Too

A growing number of CIOs and chief technology officers are taking the initiative on lifecycle management of their technology assets, including recycling or redeployment, and reuse by other organizations (schools, nonprofits and community-based organizations).

If your organization has yet to make a move in this direction, I have some friendly advice around what I call the Four Ps: Policy, Purchase, Program and Predisposal.

· Policy - Does your organization have a formal strategy and policy on the proper end-of-life disposal of its electronic devices? Are you selling your old gear through eBay or public auction, offloading surplusage through the General Services Administration, selling to employees, deeding to other organizations or disposing as junk? If you don't have a policy yet, this is the time to get your organization's posture framed.

· Program - Do you have a group or individual responsible for cradle-to-grave management of the portfolio of electronic devices? If nobody is in charge, then it's not going to happen on its own.

· Purchase - An important element of lifecycle management is acquiring devices that have less hazardous materials. In the case of PCs, include in your requirements the models selected by the EPA's Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which is largely based on European Union standards called Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS). Also do business with vendors that will take back the devices you purchase from them.

· Predispose - Create relationships ahead of time with services firms that will take responsibility for the current inventory of electronic devices in your organization. That way, reusing or recycling is forethought, not an afterthought.   

 

Remember the Bottle Bill ...

Back in the 1970s, my adopted state, Oregon, passed the Bottle Bill, first-in-the-nation legislation aimed at curbing roadside litter. In large measure, the law worked. It created a recycling industry, but more importantly, it shaped a culture of recycling that lives on today. I believe responsible leaders must step up and boldly tackle the e-waste problem. Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak. That time has come. Out of sight and out of mind is a fool's folly that is mindlessly poisoning our future.

George K. Beard  |  Contributing Writer
George K. Beard is a regular contributor to Public CIO. He is also the founder of GovernmentWise Inc., a management consulting firm; a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government; and teacher at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.