216 Stelton Road
Piscataway NJ 08854
RECYCLING AND E-WASTE
New Jersey has been a world leader in recycling policy long before it was fashionable to be so. In 1987 the State passed the first law mandating recycling. Virtually any material that comes from a natural source can be recycled to varying degrees. Recycling is the process of taking a used, or already processed material and returning it to its natural state or component parts. The most commonly recycled products in the United States are glass, aluminum and paper, although many other chemicals and containers are recycled as well.
In many communities across the United States recycling has become a weekly ritual. However, as recycling becomes commonplace, the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling is being forgotten. Everyday we use containers, products and materials who's component parts are derived from natural resources. When a product is thrown away, we cannot re-use those natural resources, and must obtain more. If you have ever seen a copper or a coal mine you can immediately see the effect mining has on the Earth. While the mineral and metal we mine are important, we have reached the point where mining operations have already extracted the largest, and most easily obtained ores. To extract new sources of ore we will have to search deeper, or use more caustic chemicals to treat remnants, as is currently done to obtain copper. Through recycling we can increase our stores of raw materials without increasing mining efforts.
Recycling is not a free gift of new resources. The laws of thermodynamics still must be obeyed. The first law of thermodynamics is that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form. So kinetic energy, the energy of motion, can change into friction and heat. The second law of thermodynamics is the "entropy law". Energy can only flow from high to low, or in other words, energy can only be used in its present form once. Many people describe this as energy becomes less useful over time. If you use a unit of energy to heat water, you cannot use the same unit of energy again to re-heat the water. What does this mean for recycling? The aluminum in a cola can is in a specific physical state. It has been acted upon by energy to shape the can, and to have the correct metallic composition to be used as a can. To return the can to pure aluminum, energy must be used. Thus recycling does not come without a cost.
Some products require more energy to recycle. This simple adherence to the laws of thermodynamics has given recycling a bad rap to some groups in society. Anti-recyclers have reported that it can take more energy to make a recycled cola can than a brand new one. However, it is not clear if in these reports they are taking into account the energy costs of mining the ore required to make a brand new can. Also, depending on the source of the energy, such as coal verses wind, it can be much better for the environment to recycle than to continue mining.
Another reason to recycle is for many natural resources, the stockpile is finite. There exists an amount of each element in the Earth's crust, and for the most part that is it. If we use up all the aluminum we can reach through mining, then that it is. While we can continue to grow trees, we cannot grow elements. Recycling helps us extend the usefulness of our natural resources.
New Jersey took an early stance on recycling with the 1987 law. In the intervening years initial successes in recycling rates dropped. The Department of Environmental Protection identified a few reasons for this trend. In 2005 Commissioner Campbell's Chief of Staff Gary Sondermeyer testified in front of the Senate Environment Committee. In his testimony Mr. Sondermeyer pointed out that the demand for recycled materials was declining. There was also a lack of support from the State, due to the increased cost of recycling and the pressure that could put on communities. To help encourage recycling efforts and to maintain New Jersey's overall commitment to recycling the Legislature passed a bill in 2003 that opened up grant opportunities for municipalities.
As the 21st Century progresses a new class of waste has burst onto the waste scene. Electronic waste, once a small almost minuscule part of the waste stream, has now become the fastest growing type of waste. Electronic waste comes from televisions, cell phones, calculators, i-pods, lap tops, the list is endless. E-waste is particularly dangerous for two reasons.
E-waste is such a problem, because the volume of electronics being discarded is only going to increase. The turn over rate for consumer electronics is incredibly rapid. Cell phones and laptops especially are discarded within 2-3 years for the latest model. This means more waste is created in a shorter amount of time. Consumer electronics are also becoming more popular as their price comes down. While in the 1990's personal computers were still mainly a play thing of the wealthy, in the 2000's not having a computer is a major disadvantage at work and school. As these electronic products become more wide spread in their use, the more they will show up in the waste stream.
Electronics pose a serious threat to the waste stream. Computers, cell phones, and the like often contain a combination of lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, polyvinyl chlorides (PVC's), beryllium, flame retardants, plastics, and other hazardous materials. While any individual piece of consumer electronics might contain trace amounts of these chemicals, the volume at which such products are entering the waste stream creates a significant problem.
The good news is that many electronics can be recycled and the parts either re-used or disposed of responsibly. Senator Bob Smith has worked hard to make e-waste recycling a reality in the State of New Jersey. Senators Smith and McNamara have sponsored Senate Bill 554 the "Electronic Waste Management Act". The Act would set guidelines on how to recycle e-waste in New Jersey. While the Act has not been passed yet, Senator Smith was pleased when Dell Computers and Goodwill Industries joined forces to inaugurate "Reconnect" a computer recycling program in New Jersey. Dell Computers has long accepted any Dell Computer back for recycling, or your old computer regardless of the brand upon purchase of a new Dell. The Reconnect program goes further. Goodwill drop off centers across the State will now accept any brand of computer, and Dell will ensure the electronics are recycled in a responsible manner.
Responsible recycling is a major point in the Electronic Waste Management Act. There are operations abroad that dismantle electronic and other hazardous wastes. However, these operations are not always located in countries with proper regulations, so there can be damage to the environment and to the people who handle the waste. Dell recycles its computers domestically.
Reconnect is an important step in removing electronic waste from our landfills. However more needs to be done to ensure that our soil and water is safe from contamination. The people of New Jersey should push for strong e-waste regulations. Before that happens, continue to recycle your batteries, cell phones, and computers where possible. If you cannot find a responsible recycling facility do the responsible thing and store your old tv's until such a time comes when they can be safely dismantled.