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Recycle E-waste and prevent pollution

By Mako Haggerty
Homer Tribune

A large deposit of copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, and palladium has been discovered in Alaska! These precious metals are currently sitting idle awaiting the chance to be turned into your newest iPad, computer, gaming console, or smart phone. Perhaps this particular deposit will be used to create a battery that will power your next hybrid vehicle or will be used to manufacture a tidal turbine in Kachemak Bay, creating a source of clean, local, and sustainable energy. No, this is not the proposed Pebble mine in southwest Alaska. This deposit is in your junk drawer, storage unit, back room, and even your local landfill.
Electronic waste – or e-waste – is the collective term for outdated, unused, and discarded electronic items. E-waste is the fastest growing source of municipal waste generated nationwide, comprising millions of tons per year. When these items enter the landfill, two opportunities are lost. First, we lose the ability to reclaim and reuse the precious metals contained within those electronics. Second, we lose an opportunity to keep toxic chemicals like cadmium, mercury, and lead from leaching into and contaminating our soil and water.
The demand for consumer electronics is staggering. Product life cycles are short due to rapidly advancing technology and increasing consumer desires. Meeting this demand requires a tremendous commitment of resources, not only during manufacturing, but in development of new mines to supply raw materials. The quick turn-over in consumer electronics also sends tons of e-waste to landfills, where contact with air and water poses risk of chemical leaching and off-gassing that even modern landfills may not be able to contain.
Our Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay communities need no reminder of the critical importance our waterways have on our economy, health, and lifestyle. As Alaskans, we are keenly aware of how technologies like cell phones, marine radios, and computers have connected us when remoteness would have otherwise kept us apart. Let’s be smart about how we use these essential tools, and keep our environment safe from the risks of irresponsible e-waste disposal and unnecessary and destructive natural resource development.
Recycling e-waste is an easy and accessible option with impressive potential. According to EPA statistics, recycling one million cell phones can recover about 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium, and more than 20,000 pounds of copper. Computers, televisions, stereos, and many other categories of consumer electronics also contain precious metals in recoverable and valuable quantities.
Landfill mining is another option worth considering. Why are we currently debating the devastation that the proposed Pebble Mine would have on our water resources and fisheries, when potential gold mines exist under old fast food wrappers and banana peels in our landfills?
Cost savings, conservation of our natural resources, and establishment of more green economy jobs are just some of the benefits that properly recycled electronics can accomplish. It doesn’t make sense, or cents, to allow these materials to be buried out of sight and mind when opportunities exist to appropriately recycle them.
One such opportunity is through the annual Homer Electronics Recycling Event which will take place this year on Saturday, April 28 from 10am to 3pm at Spenard Builders Supply. Originally spearheaded by dedicated local citizens in 2006, this annual event has become a recognizable sign of spring in Homer. Cook Inletkeeper has expanded its support of this project and for the second year is using the Homer event to increase electronics recycling opportunities in the Kachemak Bay communities of Seldovia, Port Graham, and Nanwalek.
Will recycling old electronics in Homer eliminate the need for a mine like Pebble? Not entirely. But by continuing to work with manufacturers, the public, and government agencies to encourage re-use of commonly mined minerals, we can enable decisions based on our values and sound science, and not become beholden to projects that threaten to destroy our state’s most sacred and pristine areas.

Mako Haggerty is a Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblyman, owner of Mako’s Water Taxi and serves on Cook Inletkeeper’s board of directors.

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