Ignacio Tagtachian: June 2012 Archives

Ask Ignacio: Does e-waste recycling matter?

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Welcome to our new monthly column: Ask Ignacio. Here at the Office of Sustainability, we get frequent questions from UChicago students, staff, faculty, and alumni about what is environmentally preferable. Plastic or paper? Hand dryers or paper towels? A friend told me I should only eat organic, is this true?

Each month will be dedicated to one of these questions. To submit a question, please email AskIgnacio@uchicago.edu. Think of it as sage advice (wink) for the scholar on the go.

And here we go; this is a question I was asked last week.

Q: Is recycling electronic waste a big deal? Does it really matter if I throw a laptop, batteries, or an iPhone in the trash?

A: In one word, yes. There are a couple major issues with electronic waste, or e-waste: resource conservation, leaking chemicals, and health hazards of improper recycling.

We can all accept that it is important to recycle as many materials as possible in order to conserve resources. This becomes far more critical when the materials being recycled are very rare. Electronics contain a large number of elements on the periodic table, from zinc and indium to rare earth metals like neodymium, dysprosium, and terbium. Over 60 elements are used in IT production processes; others include mercury, cadmium, beryllium, lead, bromine, gold, platinum, and lithium. The demand for many of these elements is greater than the current supply. (An interesting tidbit: there is more gold in one metric ton of circuit boards than in 17 metric tons of gold ore. Let that one sink in!)

Sometimes chemicals are not our friends. In fact, when not disposed of properly they can cause incredible damage to the environment and those who dwell in it (including us). This is easiest to explain with batteries. Over time, batteries begin to leak. What leaks out are some rather nasty acids (generally hydrochloric and sulfuric acids) that seep through the ground until they find their way to ground water. This contaminated ground water eventually finds its way to our water supply. Are you excited yet?

Last, but certainly not least, is what happens when e-waste is not recycled properly. Improperly disposed electronics frequently find their way to less developed countries. Workers will try to recover the metals and plastics under horrendous conditions. Plastics are frequently identified by burning and sniffing; after many components are smashed off the motherboard, they are burned in an attempt to recover as many of the metals as possible. All of this is frequently done by men, women, and children in close quarters full of toxic fumes. Was that a dark turn? Yes, but it is also true!

There are many other consequences of improper e-waste disposal, this post is just meant to highlight some of the larger concerns. I would encourage anyone reading this to research this further. This can get you started.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do right now. Batteries, including cell phone batteries, can be recycled rather easily. There are tube like receptacles for both battery types in Reynolds Club, Regenstein, dorms, and many other buildings. All computer-related electronics (CPUs, monitors, speakers, etc.) can be recycled through IT Services. For all other e-waste, the Office of Sustainability has you covered. We hold large e-waste collections twice a year, usually May and November. These collections accept all forms of e-waste. If there is any metal in it, we want it! We collected 36,000 lbs. of e-waste in the last May event. Yes, that is a lot of e-waste. Mark your calendars.

I hope this has been helpful. If your questions are keeping you wake at night, you are losing sleep and you just don’t know what to do anymore, your partner is about to leave you because they can’t handle your incessant environmental questions, I would love to help. Please submit your question by emailing AskIgnacio@uchicago.edu.

Forever yours,


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Ignacio Tagtachian in June 2012.

Ignacio Tagtachian: May 2012 is the previous archive.

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