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Audit: Government could do more in e-waste arena; Utah steps up

Published: Sunday, April 1 2012 12:27 a.m. MDT

Oscar Medina removes the cathode ray tubes and glass from discarded computers at Metech Recycling in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 22, 2012. Metech provides secure and environmentally responsible electronics recycling. CRTs are the video display components of televisions and computer monitors. Safely recycling CRTs saves energy and conserves resources, allows the recovered lead to be reused in other ways, and reduces the amount of lead in landfills.

Laura Seitz, Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It takes more water — 1.5 tons — than the weight of a rhinoceros or car to manufacture one computer and its monitor, but only a gentle heave to toss the electronic equipment in the trash.

Discarded electronic items — from computers to televisions to cellphones — make up the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the United States, with 2.4 million tons of the items discarded in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Salt Lake County, 787,000 pounds of discarded electronic equipment was collected in 2011 through the Salt Lake Valley Health Department's hazardous waste program — the state's largest and most aggressive e-waste recycling effort.

"The people who are taking the time to recycle this stuff, they care," said Dorothy Adams, a supervisor in the program. "When they bring it to us, they ask a lot of questions. It speaks to how much they care where it ends up."

Adams said the public is becoming increasingly aware that tons of the discarded equipment end up overseas in Third World countries where in many instances children are melting it down to get to the precious metals inside.

"They are exposing themselves to all these toxic fumes," she said. "It is sad because there is value in the precious metals they will do anything to get to them. … Recycling is great, but where is it going?"

The EPA estimates that the U.S. government — as the world's largest single information technology purchaser — tosses 10,000 computers weekly, with no guarantees the used electronics are ultimately being disposed of in environmentally responsible ways, according to a recent report.

A performance audit performed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office between October 2010 and January 2012 surveyed a sampling of five federal agencies and disposition practices for electronics — such as auctions or donations of items through surplus property procedures.

While the federal government has launched a variety of initiatives to improve management of the electronic products, the audit found that agencies do not track the ultimate destination of the donated or recycled product — reasoning it is the recipient organization's responsibility.

It's a tough task, concedes Kenneth MacNevin, spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency's Disposition Services, which manages excess property for the Department of Defense at more than 100 sites in 41 states and 16 foreign countries.

"Industry or big users like the Defense Department or corporate America are having to constantly look at how to safely dispose of equipment," he said. "Understanding of the concerns of e-waste has grown, where it traditionally lagged behind some of the understanding of water pollution, air pollution and just plain trash pollution."

DLA handles excess inventory at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah, as well as Utah-based National Guard units at oversea deployments in places like Iraq or Afghanistan.

Systemwide, MacNevin said DLA had more than $20 billion worth of material turned in last year, with the primary emphasis placed on reuse.

As an example, 400 used components of fighter jets initially priced at $500,000 were no longer usable by the military and instead redistributed to U.S. allies, saving the cost of destruction, said Dick Ward, area DLA manager at Hill.

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