E-Waste Toxics 101: Commodity or Waste?

Environmentalists need to take a "precautionary principle" towards declaring and labelling things hazardous. How Stuff Works has a nice map of the human brain which specifically locates the source of "Panic Attacks".

We have to manage toxics at our electronics recycling facility. The most important is lead (leaded silica in CRTs), and when we manage lighting (fluorescent lamps), there is mercury. The lead and things like lithium are actually very valuable and are solid and sold as commodities, but if discarded in a landfill they will likely leach into the groundwater. There is a lot of learning we have to do, keeping track of differences between:

a) what OSHA considers a hazard (mainly based on volatility, lead that cannot escape is not a bigger concern whether an item is "new", "used" or "accumulated")
b) what DOT (federal motor vehicle carriers / Dept of Transportation) considers hazardous (caustics, explosives, weight are more important than toxicity), and
c) EPA RCRA definitions of hazardous waste (what a TCLP test will show escapes into the groundwater if left in a landfill). If a lead battery is recycled, it isn't a waste, and the key difference is whether it is allowed to sit in the rain or soak in a landfill.

I am learning about other risks and "qualified" risks. Cyanide is used a lot at mines, but evidently it evaporates and breaks down to a harmless level quickly enough that we should not be concerned it's tipped onto the ground. I have to be careful myself not to cast "alarmist" references to mining (recycling's only true competitor). Similarly, lead CRTs sent to glass smelters are not very volatile - and a heck of a lot better than mined ore they replace.

What really adds unnecessary noise in the system are postings that declare a hazard that isn't even there ("mercury switches" and "mercury gases" inside Cathode Ray Tubes? Not in any MSDS sheet I have found to date). My favorite is when an alarmist lists health food store supplements (copper, zinc, other "dietary minerals") Good Point's warehouse is fortified with Iron, both a commodity and a dietary mineral, though that's not an excuse not o audit its management.

Just as western medicine inherits anecdotes (like hairy palms, crossed eyes, and bad luck caused by salt shakers) that frighten children more than real risks (like not washing your hands), our field (environmental health) has some pretty wacky alarm bells going off. A visitor to my plant demanded to know point blank if we are managing copper here in Addison County. At $2 per pound, I sure hope so.

Much of what an EH&S training should do is to educate employees about what they should really be worried about in a way that adds statistically to their safety and health. At Good Point, I believe the biggest risk is the forklift... people at warehouses around the country get killed or hurt by unsafe forlift operators. But they don't have to take my word for it. We set up employee representatives to filter questions for safety meeting so that no question is scoffed at or made to sound silly, and monthly safety records show which are new concerns and which are ongoing concerns, and (hopefully) documents our efforts (or lack thereof) to find a solution.

What really doesn't help are health insurance companies selling policies charging money to protect us from "hairy palms", or home insurance policies against falling trees in the desert, floods in desert highlands, etc.

To that degree, E-steward standards and legislation that requires actions to be taken against silly threats (containment of dietary minerals, wiping before shredding of 10 year old hard drives), plug-and-play definitions of "functionality" (rather than what the purchaser defines and demonstrates is their own definition of functional) ... recyclers do them because they don't know not to, then want to use the costly and unnecessary practice to raise the level of concern about competitors who just shred drives without wiping them first. Those companies are kind of in the fear-selling, poster-child waving, hyperbolic court which could cause Americans to become cynical about recycling, and about legitimate toxic threats as well.

Risks should be ranked and workforce standards should be based on the most effective ways of bringing the most health to the most employees. While we wait for standards like RIOS and R2 to gain traction, it would be nice to stop the "chicken littles" from screaming about a 4% failure rate of reuse monitors when the process of breaking and recycling them is more dangerous, more expensive, and requires more new monitors to be mined and manufactured. Our industry needs to get on the ball and embrace standard setting organizations like ISRI, OSHA, and WR3A.

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