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.
Defense department agencies typically have strong, cooperative partnerships with area law enforcement agencies, with Hill being an aggressive player to help supply police with no longer needed equipment. Schools, too, MacNevin said, are a big recipient of computers, but what a rural elementary school in Sanpete County ultimately may do with a donated laptop isn't tracked in any extraordinary fashion.
"We know where it came from within the Department of Defense and we have a record of it going to the recipient," MacNevin said. "They sign an agreement saying they will only dispose of the item in accordance with local rules, and that carries the power that any signed document carries."
The audit said the federal government needs to be more aggressive in tracking the disposal of unwanted electronics, which could end up in foreign countries to be destroyed via acid baths or open-air incineration.
"If discarded domestically with common trash, a number of adverse environmental impacts may result, including the potential for harmful substances such as cadmium, lead and mercury to enter the environment," the audit said.
Beyond the emphasis of reuse through interagency sharing, MacNevin said DLA does have an aggressive salvage program for the extraction of precious metals from disposed electronic equipment like circuit boards, pulling out gold, silver, palladium or copper valued at about $14 million last year.
Over the last 30 years, the program has returned $300 million to the Defense Department, according to DLA's Jeff Landenberger.
In the case of sensitive electronic equipment, DLA said those products are destroyed through incineration. Dugway Proving Ground, in 2011, used a contractor to ship 1 ton of electronic waste to a local incinerator.
The state of Utah has had a contract in place with Metech Recycling since 2004 to dispose of unwanted electronics used by its departments as well as any county or local entity that wants to jump on board. Salt Lake County, for example, makes use of the state's contract and goes through the company to dispose of its electronic equipment.
Metech is the state's only e-Stewards certified recycling facility under the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit group that works to stop the export of hazardous waste — including electronics — to developing countries.
The certification means Metech's practices are subject to a third-party audit and the company maintains an intense chain of custody for all the items it receives and then distributes to downstream recyclers, which also have to been held to the same strict standards.
"We can tell our customers exactly where everything is going," said Bruce Edstrom, Metech's sales manager. "We are able to recycle everything that comes in. If you don't know where it is going, even though you get a certificate of destruction, you may not want to know where it ends up." Edstrom said the company through its chain of downstream recyclers is able to recycle 95 percent of the material it takes in.
In 2004, the first year of Utah's five-year contract with Metech, state purchasing agent David Gill said it cost about $70,000 for participating taxpayer-funded entities throughout Utah to dispose of unwanted electrical items.
Every year, Gill said, more counties and cities along the Wasatch Front are opting to participate in the contract.
Through that cooperative arrangement, entities like the Bountiful landfill can piggy-back on the contract's 19 cents per pound rate and as a result, 2.2 million pounds of e-scrap was funneled from Utah entities to Metech in the last fiscal year, at an overall cost of $422,241.
"We are actually paying less per pound than we did the first year because of the greater participation," Gill said.
Watchdog groups like the Electronics Take Back Coalition say a big problem in the federal government's handling of e-waste, or e-scrap, is that unwanted products are disposed of at auctions in bulk purchases, where unethical brokers can then ferry the products oversea for cheap — and dangerous — disposal or dismantling.
Both the audit and the coalition point out that few agencies know if recycling companies used for disposal are certified to the strictest standards under the Basel Action Network, with the coalition estimating at least half of electrical products handled by U.S. recyclers end up overseas.
Last fall in an unprecedented case investigated by the EPA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Departent of Homeland Security, criminal charges were brought against two men who ran a Colorado recycling company with contracts in place with Denver, Boulder and several other cities.
Indictments allege the men were responsible for at least 300 exports, falsified their records and made revenue in excess of $1.8 million off the transactions.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would require electronics exporters be licensed by the EPA and restrict the export of toxic e-waste to developing countries, including by federal agencies.
Earlier this month, the federal government announced that all its agencies are banned from diposing of electronics in landfills and must use a certified recycler.
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