e-waste graphic

E-waste, the shortened term for electronic waste, is a relatively new environmental worry that poses a threat, with long-standing, harmful health and environmental effects. While it is important to keep in mind, the overall goal is to reduce electronics consumption in order to reduce e-waste production. 

Common examples of e-waste found in households and offices include: batteries, computers, TVs, calculators, printers, vacuum cleaners and more. The amount of electronic devices people use in their everyday routine is a lot more than you consciously realize ... from using your hairdryer out of the shower, preparing breakfast with your toaster, to setting your alarm before falling asleep — these appliances contribute to our daily routines and increase our comfort and perceived standard of living. 

It is no lie to say that our electronic devices are not always perfectly made or invincible to human wear and tear, so we often times replace our devices or simply upgrade them. On campus and in Knoxville, what kind of procedures are there in place to deal with e-waste sustainably?

Patience Melnik, the solid waste manager for the city of Knoxville, explained that Knoxville has a specific procedure in place for safely disposing of e-waste and hazardous materials that these items out of normal landfills.

“The City of Knoxville contracts with a company called ‘Green Wave’ and pays them to pick up the e-waste, disassemble it, recycle the valuable materials and safely dispose of the toxic materials," Melnik said. 

Green Wave is an EPA-certified company that dismantles e-waste and collects the profitable parts of the electronics, like precious metals or plastics, to process further and eventually be used to manufacture other items. By being a certified recycler, this means the United States Environmental Protection Agency deems its health and disposing standards to be fit, so there is minimal human and environmental exposure throughout the recycling process. 

The cost of recycling e-waste is expensive, and there are many risks of environmental hazards when they are not disposed of correctly. 

“Because computers and other electronics contain both precious metals and toxic materials, there is financial incentive for unethical and uncertified e-waste recyclers to collect e-waste, often for free, remove the materials of value and then illegally dump or hoard the rest, as proper disposal of the toxics can be expensive,” Melnik said. “This material can threaten human health and the environment when it gets into the soil and water, and can be very costly to cleanup.”

That is why many waste management resources turn to companies like Green Wave that specialize in recycling e-waste because they have more resources to put towards ethical and safe practices.

Khann Chov, recycling supervisor at the University of Tennessee, explained that the university also participates in recycling e-waste and uses the vendor Powerhouse Recycling. The Office of Sustainability and its drive to “Make Orange Green” has several different types of resources available for students wanting to join in recycling e-waste.

“Many residence halls also have bins for these items, but locations vary from hall to hall. During move out at residence halls, the Office of Sustainability hosts e-waste drives for students to dispose of a variety of electronics such as small kitchen electronics, tablets, calculators or laptops,” Khann said. 

Students can participate in e-waste recycling by sending small electronics via the mail by sending them to “Recycling” through UT mail services or by dropping off their waste off at the Public Recycling Drop-Off, located right behind Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The Office of Sustainability also helps the university dispose of something called ‘universal waste.’

“The Office of Sustainability does dispose of universal waste from the university, but we do not accept items from the public. Universal waste refers to items such as lightbulbs, batteries and ballasts.” Khann said. “Universal waste comes primarily from consumer products containing mercury, lead, cadmium and other substances that are hazardous to human health and the environment. These items cannot be discarded in household trash nor disposed of in landfills”

Typically, students wanting to properly dispose of hazardous waste can take it to the city's household hazardous waste facility located in the Solid Waste Facility at 1033 Elm Street.

However, since recent events concerning coronavirus and Governor Bill Lee’s stay-at-home order, waste management in Knoxville is looking different than usual. 

“The Household Hazardous Waste is currently closed, and the entire Solid Waste Facility is closed on Saturdays. Cash is not currently accepted at the Solid Waste Facility; residents and businesses must use cards,” Melnik said. “Additionally, extra recycling outside the provided City of Knoxville recycling cart is not currently accepted as Waste Connections works to minimize touch points with the materials.“

During this public health crisis, the safety of workers is extremely important to most organizations and businesses, and waste management and recycling is no different. 

With the university currently having its campus closed, the recycling center faces different circumstances, as well. 

“We have changed the way we have handled materials at the recycling public drop-off on Stephenson Drive. While we continue to accept cans (aluminum and steel), paper, cardboard and plastics: labeled no. 1-7, we are not taking plastic film, e-waste, batteries, scrap metal or donations for the free store,” Khann said. “Our goal is to minimize the contact our staff has with materials.”

The recycling drop-off also recommends that the public tries to practice social distancing and refrain from possibly putting others in danger. 

“The recycle drop off typically sees high traffic on the weekends, and dumpsters get overloaded. We recommend that the public makes an attempt to visit the public drop off during the week when levels are lower,” Khann said. “We can not accept recyclables from any households with individuals testing positive for COVID-19 or any household with individuals showing signs of COVID-19.”

So, while the disposing and recycling of e-waste is currently on hold, it is recommended that you hold onto your electronic and hazardous waste to dispose of at a later date. It is still important to keep in mind the risks that improper disposal of these types of items can have on the environment.

“Studies have shown that Improper handling and disposal of e-waste can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution. Heavy metals and toxic chemicals are non biodegradable and can leach into groundwater and soil,” Khann said. “If disposed in a landfill, incineration makes these hazardous materials airborne.”

Of course, the uncertainty of the future is on the minds of many through these times, helping take care of the Earth now can make for a healthier and safer future. Following correct disposal and recycling procedures locally is one way to clean up landfills and contribute towards ethical practices of sustainable e-waste production. 

It is important to avoid excessive e-waste dumping that can lead to harmful health effects for humans and animals that will carry the burden of our electronic overconsumption and careless disposal methods. 

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