Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality
Summer 2001
Electronic Waste:
A New Challenge For A New Millennium
Walk into most households in the U.S. today, and you will find at least one television and a computer. Most businesses and other organizations now also use computers, and consider them essential to conduct business. But today’s latest and greatest television or computer will eventually break down or no longer serve its owner’s needs. It then becomes part of a fast-growing type of waste: electronic waste, or e-waste, as it is commonly referred to.

Estimates of the numbers of televisions and computers considered obsolete, unwanted, or unusable every year vary widely, with some estimates as high as tens of millions. Regardless of the actual numbers, there is no doubt that they are enormous. And enormous numbers mean an enormous problem, if it is all just considered waste and handled as trash. But Jim Harford, DEQ Hazardous Waste Compliance Assistance Specialist, prefers to think in terms of opportunity, rather than waste.

Computers, monitors and keyboards line the tables at the state’s surplus property facility. Equipment that isn’t eventually sold at auction is recycled.
“Over 97 percent of computer contents can be reused or recycled,” he said. “This offers a great opportunity to significantly reduce the amount of e-waste that ends up as trash being sent to our landfills. It is important to think of these items as valuable and reusable, rather than junk.”

Millions of computers, computer monitors, and televisions ending up in landfills is not only a waste of resources, Harford said, it could be a threat to the environment because e-waste contains hazardous materials.
“A major culprit in the hazardous waste arena is the computer monitor and television cathode ray tube. The CRT, as it is commonly called, often contains from five to eight pounds of lead. In addition, computers may also contain lead, silver, cadmium, mercury, selenium, and chromium. These are items best kept out of our landfills.”
Current waste management
Computer and television waste is managed like any other solid waste. Under state and federal waste management regulations, hazardous waste produced by households is not regulated. Households disposing of computers, monitors, and televisions are allowed to put these items in the trash, for landfill disposal. DEQ discourages landfill disposal, but no federal or state laws presently prevent it. All other generators of electronic waste (businesses, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and other non-household generators) may be subject to hazardous waste rules due to the hazardous components found in the waste. DEQ encourages reuse and recycling of e-waste whenever possible and feasible.

Finding ways to keep electronic waste out of landfills is a challenge now facing electronic equipment manufacturers, recycling and waste management organizations, elected officials, and environmental regulatory agencies such as DEQ. At present, many households have little choice but to put obsolete or broken electronic items in the trash.

“We do recognize the problem,” Harford said. “We have been, and will continue to, examine options which would encourage full recycling of electronic equipment components in such a way as to reduce landfill disposal. We have based our policies and advice on current regulations, but we recognize that additional steps will need to be taken.”
Dealing with e-waste
Some of the efforts that are currently underway to deal with e-waste include:
  • Computer equipment manufacturers that offer “take back” programs;
  • The Keep Nebraska Beautiful Materials Exchange Program. This program encourages computer reuse and recycling. In a recent month, the program found new homes for nearly 50 computers, and found recycling outlets for over 30,000 pounds of computer equipment;
  • Businesses that accept obsolete or unwanted electronic equipment for refurbishing and reuse, or recycling of components if the equipment is no longer useable; and
  • Non-profit organizations that accept working computers and televisions for use or resale.
The Future of E-Waste
One thing is certain; electronic waste is with us to stay. And it’s likely to continue increasing in volume. “A serious challenge we are facing is that refurbishing and reuse of computers and televisions, while desirable and encouraged, just delays the ultimate disposal problem,” Harford said. “These items will eventually be unusable, and it will be important to have programs in place that divert this waste from landfills.”

The key to avoid becoming buried under mountains of discarded computers, computer monitors, and televisions is the development of viable markets for recycling this type of waste, Harford said. The markets need to be broadly based so that people can get their electronic waste delivered to the market. What we are likely to see in the future of e-waste, he said, includes:
  • An increase in the number of businesses that will refurbish and recycle electronic equipment. This will help keep more equipment in continued use, and out of landfills;
  • Additional take back programs by electronic equipment manufacturers; and
  • Greater use of alternative products, such as LCD panels and plasma screens for televisions and computers. These items contain little or no hazardous material.

Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality
1200 "N" Street, Suite 400
P.O. Box 98922
Lincoln, Nebraska 68509
(402) 471-2186