Depending on your age, you might chuckle while reminiscing about the IBM PS/2, daisy wheel printers or that brick-heavy cell phone circa 1997. Outdated computer equipment might be amusingly nostalgic; it’s also plenty poisonous. What’s best done with passé or dead computers — yesterday’s hot innovation, today’s toxic waste — is the environmental question of the Information Age.
“Global manufacturers are marketing green products much more aggressively in Europe, where regulations are tighter from the get-go.” — Julie L. Rhodes
The great news is that Indiana is working to get ahead of the curve on the issue of electronic waste, thanks the Indiana Recycling Coalition’s E-Scrap Action Program. Led by consultant Julie L. Rhodes, the E-Scrap program is working with stakeholders in business, local government, economic development and non-profits to set up responsible and sustainable new infrastructures, markets and methods for handling e-scrap. It’s about time, since nearly 12 million personal computers and other electronics will become obsolete in Indiana between 1997 and 2007. Although e-scrap is only 2 percent of the solid waste stream, its hazardous nature makes it a higher priority. If you incinerate e-scrap like any other trash, the mercury and lead in the circuit and solder boards seep into the water supply or get released into the air through smokestack ash. Of late, 75 percent of U.S. businesses have been shipping obsolete hardware to China or India. Three more responsible ways to “close the loop” include carefully managing the scrap as hazardous waste, extracting the toxins or reusing the equipment. Creating and promoting new options for Indiana businesses is the work of the E-Scrap Action Program. “The impetus for the E-Scrap program was that our state wasn’t really doing anything about the issue, but now the Indiana Department of Environmental Management is a player,” Rhodes says. Other groups that have contributed strategies or funding include Subaru, Eli Lilly, Daimler Chrysler, HH Gregg; governments in the state’s most populous counties; and for-profit and non-profit recyclers. One stakeholder is Mark Vander Kooy, president of Asset Forwarding, an electronic remarketing and disposal company. “The E-Scrap Action Program is a rare opportunity for otherwise competitors to work closely together to provide a solution that is bigger than any one of us.” While environmentalists might see e-scrap as an ethics issue, for business it’s an economic one. Change makers like Rhodes see both angles from a practical viewpoint. After about a year of work, “We’ve held five stakeholder meetings with two more to come in May  and July,” Rhodes says. “We’re developing an online toolkit [www.indianarecycling.org] that includes information on hiring an e-scrap service provider, understanding liability and security issues, navigating state regulations, eliminating exports of e-scrap and purchasing greener equipment in the first place.” The toolkit will include guidelines and checklists to help municipalities and businesses raise the bar, comply with federal regulations and explore better systems for de-manufacturing used products. “For example,” Rhodes says, “we could work with the Department of Corrections on de-manufacturing products. The bottom line is to bring down the cost of managing e-scrap for businesses and individuals.”
Having cleaner and greener products is the obvious preventive solution to e-scrap challenges. Rhodes reports, “There has been some national dialogue with HP, Dell and the states. But it’s slow moving. Global manufacturers are marketing green products much more aggressively in Europe, where regulations are tighter from the get-go.” For example, using silver instead of lead in circuit boards. “Here in the U.S., we’re regulation-shy and very volunteer based,” she says. Are Americans as willing as Europeans to pay an extra $10-$20 per purchase for an end-of-life recovery fee? This fall the E-scrap stakeholders will make recommendations to state government and the Legislature. Rhodes says there “seems to be lots of interest in a landfill ban from a variety of stakeholder groups. But a ban has a price tag and it could inadvertently encourage illegal dumping. How cheaply can we do this?” The point is that Hoosiers are dealing with the issue. “Indiana will now have an infrastructure to respond to new upcoming EPA regs,” Rhodes says. What about your own closet full of dead hard drives and lifeless printers? Purge them on Earth Day, April 24, when the Indiana Recycling Coalition works with the City of Indianapolis to collect e-scrap (computer equipment/accessories and cell phones only) at the old Market Square arena site. A non-profit group called The Virtual Scavengers Project, Inc., will redistribute what’s dropped off. Virtual Scavengers CEO John Crooks sums it up. “The Information Age is producing so much technology so much faster than our ability to utilize it that if we don’t act now, in 50 years our great grandchildren are going to be brushing their teeth with cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium. … The E-Scrap program is an opportunity for Indiana to get in on the ground floor of a movement that is not only of great benefit to society but also has amazing growth potential.”