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New Report Examines High-Tech Trash, e-Waste, Ahead Of Black Friday

New York, NY — On Black Friday, a massive amount of highly polluting, future consumer electronic waste is about to be unleashed, according to a new report by the national policy center Demos. The Consumer Electronics Association says 74 percent of Americans buying gifts this holiday season will likely purchase consumer electronics, spending an average of $230 each on hot ticket items such as tablets, notebooks, e-readers, and smart phones. About 11 million flat screen televisions will be sold in the final quarter of 2010 alone. Remember when the “Black Friday” headlines were all about hard-to-get toys like Cabbage Patch Dolls? Now the post-Thanksgiving frenzy has become virtually synonymous with bargain electronics, with the average household now owning about 18 to 24 devices each.

The new Demos report, "Tackling High Tech Trash: The E-Waste Explosion and What We Can do About It," authored by journalist Elizabeth Grossman, exposes the other side of our annual electronic buying binges, namely, ever-growing piles of discarded electronics, or “e-waste.” Without convenient and guaranteed safe outlets, e-waste has become the “world's fastest growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Watch "The Story of Electronics"

The short, accompanying animated video, "The Story Of Electronics," developed by Annie Leonard and the team behind The Story of Stuff Project, shows exactly how the electronics industry, guided by a rule of "Designed for the Dump," created an unsustainable cycle that is not only wasteful but harmful to both people and the environment.

"Tackling High Tech Trash" brings a sharp new focus to the problem, with up-to-date numbers and the latest thinking about solutions. Demos program director Lew Daly, who commissioned and edited the report for Demos’ Sustainable Progress Initiative, said that “remarkable technological developments in electronics have driven down prices while increasing functionality and capacity, enabling rapid gains in value at relatively low upfront cost to consumers. The resulting benefits have created the most positive economic storyline of the past 15 years. Yet at the same time we have a real crisis of responsibility here, because our consumption of high-tech electronics has far outstripped our ability to handle all the waste we’re leaving behind with each new upgrade.” In the report, author Elizabeth Grossman looks closely at the trends driving this problem:

--  In a market worth about $233 billion in 2010, Americans now own about 3 billion electronic products, with a turnover rate of about 400 million units annually. Together, these sales volumes and rapid turnover rates have created the fastest growing waste stream in the world: in the U.S. alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 372 million electronic units weighing 3.16 million tons entered the waste stream in 2007 and 2008. Less than 14 percent was recycled, with the rest going to dumps and incinerators. Much of what is recycled, moreover, is handled unsafely in developing countries, posing serious health and environmental hazards. 

-- In contrast to other high-volume waste streams such as industrial effluents and air pollution, the rapidly growing U.S. e-waste stream is relatively uncontrolled and lightly regulated, relying on a patchwork of voluntary “take-back” initiatives, and legislated state and local electronics recycling programs. With 4 to 5 billion units projected to enter the e-waste stream in the United States over the next 10 years, we urgently need to develop a more comprehensive and coordinated policy framework to regulate and restrict hazardous dumping and recycling while also incentivizing design innovations that extend product life and reduce overall toxicity in electronics.
The report revealingly analyzes the unique characteristics of electronics production, consumption, and disposal that make e-waste particularly problematic to control and hazardous if left uncontrolled, including: 

--  Short product life-spans—the commercial and technological origins of rapid turnover in consumer electronics.

-- Design and materials complexity, global supply chains, and insufficiently regulated recycling and e-scrap markets.

-- The high toxicity of many materials used in electronic devices, and the adverse health and environmental impacts of poorly regulated e-waste disposal, materials salvage, and recycling-for-reuse. 

An extensive policy discussion focuses on how to improve the scope and safety of recycling systems and assesses the challenges involved in moving toward a more integrated life-cycle approach to electronics design, production, and recycling. “Ultimately, controlling the problem of e-waste has to begin with how products are designed and the materials they contain,” Daly said. “We need products that are better designed, more adaptable for longer life-spans, and less toxic when they’re thrown away. Along with the public sector and consumers themselves, producers in this very profitable industry need to take more responsibility for the disposal costs that, to this point, have been borne largely by local communities and the environment. For all involved, the most cost-effective way of doing that is by innovation in the products themselves.” 

For more information or to schedule an interview please contact Tim Rusch at (212) 389.1497 or [email protected].