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Household E-Waste Disposal Fees Let the Real Polluters Off the Hook

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

Apr 17, 2017 10:25:24 AM

Paying up to 100 percent of the upfront cost of a product to dispose of it transfers the costs of bad product design from the maker to consumers.


I took a 5-gallon bucket full of spent electronic devices to my local waste management yard this morning.

Total cost to get rid of 20 CFL light bulbs, two smoke detectors and one cordless drill battery: $55.00. Are you kidding me? In case you're wondering, it's $1 per light bulb, $5 per battery, and $15 per smoke detector.

I know what your first thought is. Some places take some of these items for free—notably certain hardware stores—At least for now. We'll address that shortly.

It's easy for manufacturers to claim ignorance. The asbestos folks did that for a long time. So did the cigarette makers and DDT enthusiasts. So why is there no outcry about household items that can't be thrown away without what amounts to a hidden penalty cost due to toxic product design? The price of toxin disposal is growing. For people who hate Obamacare because it forces people to pay a fine if they forego insurance, don't smoke detectors fall into the same category? Building safety-related codes require a certain number of detectors in any living space. Leave them out as a builder, and you are risking fines and legal liability. For landlords, the risk is even greater. Fail to place and maintain them in a rental building (or fail to keep their batteries up to date--another toxic item), and you could face jail time.

Lesser Evil Logic

Let's back up a little. The REASON we're paying to get rid of these items is that they are not safe. The lamps contain deadly mercury. The lithium-ion batteries contain toxic electrolytes. Lead batteries, the type used in work vehicles and heavier equipment, have their own set of toxicity issues. Smoke detectors are among the most intractable problems. The older, ionization-type smoke detectors contain radioactive isotopes of americium-241, which decays to neptunium-237, with a half-life of 432.2 years.

The arguments for using a product that contains toxins often rests on a "lesser evil" premise. Take CFLs. THe EPA supported the conversion from incandescents to CFLs after researching mercury emissions from coal plants, with the following statements:
  • Small amounts of mercury can be released into the environment when CFLs break, or if they are improperly disposed of at the end of their useful lives.
  • Despite these emissions, the use of CFLs actually helps reduce total mercury emissions in the U.S. because of their significant energy savings.  Using energy-saving CFLs reduces demand for electricity, which in turn reduces the amount of coal burned by power plants, which reduces emissions of mercury when the coal is burned.

A 2011 study of CFL disposal found that "As a result of discarded fluorescent lights, including CFLs, U.S. landfills release into the atmosphere and in storm-water runoff upward of 4 tons of mercury annually, according to a study in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association.(source). And another report by the EPA found that only about half of fluorescent lamps are recycled. Data comparing mercury releases from coal, dentists and other sources are complex and require a lot of educated guesswork.

Were CFLs really a greener choice than continuing on with incandescents that require more coal burning? Possibly, if you accept the logic of lesser evil, and follow the narrow path of coal-fired power generation. You also have to accept the EPA's baseline estimate of CFL lifespan at 8,000 hours. In my experience, I've never had a CFL last nearly that long. Also, yes, on a national scale, coal has been the predominant energy source in the U.S.for decades, but that varies a lot by region and State. Other states such as Maine lean heavily on hydropower. A lesser evil tradeoff in one state might actually have resulted in MORE mercury pollution, not less, due to improper bulb disposal and in-house breakage.

And ultimately, that's not the point. The point is that manufacturers knew they were leaving consumers in the lurch, with products too dangerous to throw away in household trash.Sure, we saved a lot of energy using CFLs, but that was only the first part of the story. And overall, our national coal burning per capita has increased (see chart 3). What does that say about the CFL lesser evil logic? Would the coal use have been even higher with incandescents still in place? Or would we have been more careful about shutting out the lights as we leave a room? Consumer behavior around energy efficiency is anything but predictable.

The "Phase Out" Paradox

Of course, CFLs are likely going away, replaced by cleaner, more efficient LEDs. GE has already announced an phase-out plan. But what about the millions of existing CFLs already flooding the marketplace? Odds are that many will end up in poorer countries, to live out their short lifespans in places where they will ultimately be disposed of improperly. If you doubt this, visit South America or rural latin America and look around. They're still using incandescents.

But that's exactly what companies such as GE, Sylvania, and Philips have been doing for decades. Of course, these have been useful and in some cases energy-saving products. But their full environmental price is now coming due. They've been raking in tremendous profits over that time, in part because they haven't addressed the end-of-life costs of their dangerous products. Or should I say, they've passed them on to all of us.

Cleaner Alternatives

In many cases, the technology exists to replace the toxic elements starting today. But for the most part, it's not happening fast enough, nor on a large enough scale, with the exception of LEDs, which are coming on fast. There's no reason I can see that CFLs should not be phased out and banned immediately.

Better Batteries? It's time for toolmakers to step ut to the challenge as well, and pour a lot more R&D money into cleaner, renewable battery solutions. Research on lithium-ion batteries, for example, is closing on some cleaner technology:

"Physics researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have discovered that most of the electrolytes used in lithium-ion batteries—commonly found in consumer electronic devices—are superhalogens, and that the vast majority of these electrolytes contain toxic halogens.

At the same time, the researchers also found that the electrolytes in lithium-ion batteries (also known as Li-ion batteries) could be replaced with halogen-free electrolytes that are both nontoxic and environmentally friendly." Source

Radiation-Free Smoke Detectors

Newer photoelectric detectors typically do not contain radioactive isotope. But almost every "expert" source on smoke detectors, including the ostensably consumer-friendly Consumer Reports, advocates buying BOTH types of detectors, Notice in their advice, they do not even MENTION the fact that ion-type detectors contain radioactive materials and will cost a lot to dispose of properly. Here's their pitch:smoke-detector-radioactivity2.jpg

"Fires burn differently: Some flare, some smolder. Make sure you purchase a smoke alarm that can detect both types of fires.

Ionization Smoke Alarms are best at detecting the small particles typical of fast, flaming fires but in our tests, all tested poorly for detecting smoky, smoldering fires. Ionization units are prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so don't mount them near a kitchen or bathroom.

Photoelectric Smoke Alarms are best at detecting the large particles typical of smoky, smoldering fires but poor at detecting fast, flaming fires. Photoelectric units are less prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so you can install them safely around the kitchen or bathroom.

Dual-sensor Smoke Alarms combine ionization and photoelectric technology to save you the hassle of installing two separate smoke detectors. But you will still need to install CO units."

But do we really need two both detector types in a home? According the the NFPA, "In tests, ionization alarms will typically respond about 30 to 90 seconds faster to “fast-flame” fires than photoelectric smoke alarms. However, in smoldering fires ionization alarms respond an average of 15 to 50 minutes slower than photoelectric alarms."

I just finished putting 7 fire doors in a building. The doors have a 1-hour fire rating. Does 30 to 90 seconds really make that much difference in terms of occupant life safety? If so, why don't we install 10-minute fire doors? Dig deeper into the statistics of smoke alarms (courtesy of the NFPA) and you get a more complete picture of how they actually perform in the field: This is from the NFPA's website;

Smoke alarms by the numbers
  • In 2007-2011, smoke alarms sounded in half of the home fires reported to U.S. fire departments.
  • Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.
  • No smoke alarms were present in more than one-third (37%) of the home fire deaths.
  • In one-quarter (23%) of the home fire deaths, smoke alarms were present but did not sound.
  • In reported home fires in which the smoke alarms were present but did not operate, almost half (47%) of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries. Nuisance alarms were the leading reason for disconnected smoke alarms.

Put it together. Of the deaths caused by fires, the real issue was either lack of smoke alarms or absence of batteries in the existing alarms, not the TYPE of fire alarm present. Perhaps it's time for the industry to take a second look at the "dual" alarm type recommendation, and switch completely to non-radioactive units. Unless I'm missing something, the impact of life safety would be negligible.

Take-Backs and Upcycling

Of the three types of toxic items discussed in this article, CFLs are probably the easiest to dispose of through free take-back programs. Many hardware stores, including, Aubuchon, Lowes and Home Depot, take used CFLs back.

The options for tool batteries vary by both brand and region. While battery recycling is available at Home Depot, for example, if you're interested in reconditioning an existing battery, you have to look harder. I've been disappointed in small shop results on this front. I sent four batteries from my Porter Cable drill to local reconditioner and never heard back from him. The other obstacle to lithium battery rebuilding, in my experiencem, is cost. Price to rebuild an 18-volt battery is about $40, compared with a price only slightly higher for a brand new one.

For manufacturers slow to adopt battery recycling plans, States may step in and require them to do so. In Florida, for example, a recycling statute is already on the books:

Florida Statute 403.7192 requires that manufacturers and marketers of rechargeable battery and rechargeable battery powered products sold in Florida implement a unit management system. The unit management system should clearly inform consumers of the disposal prohibition, ensure batteries and products are labeled to show electrolyte and disposal options, and provide a program to properly collect, transport, and recycle or dispose of the batteries and products (see the 1997 Memorandum or the Requirement Spreadsheet). If the manufacturers and marketers fail to comply they are not allowed to sell their batteries and products in Florida.

It's my hope that manufacturers who have not yet addressed the safe disposal or recycling of their products at end of like will do so post haste. All three of these toxic legacy products emerged out of a perceived need in the marketplace. But like the nuclear power industry, all three have a fatal flaw that made them unsustainable over the long haul. And as the Florida statue above demonstrates, if manufacturers drag their feet, and ignore responsibility for the end game of their products, they may face top-down rules and regulations that are far more costly than simply doing the right thing.

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