New York: Redundant computers, old television sets and outdated cell phones have become a monumental problem of disposal for utility companies the world over. For decades doomsday sayers have been warning against a bleak future brought on by mountains of toxic waste from discarded electronics. 

In US, consumer electronic products alone account for approximately 40 percent of lead found in the landfills. For starters, each color monitor or television set can contain up to eight pounds of lead. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, some 12 million tons of electronic waste soon will be dumped into the American landfills, tainting the soil with high lead concentration. For that reason, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US are working overtime to redress this troubled area of electronic or e-waste recycling. 

A model-recycling paradigm embraced by United States, the researchers say, could some day prove to be a reality in developing countries like India and China, to which such discarded computers and other sundry electronics are donated or shipped in bulk.

Researches at GIT are looking at solutions, which will not only recycle electronic waste but also avert danger of toxic material seeping into the groundwater from disposal sites. 

A study underway at the GIT, called “Reverse Production,” is aimed at devising methods that will collect e-trash, tear apart devices and collect their components for reuse. 

The major hazardous components contained in the electronics waste stream are cathode ray tube, due to their high lead content. These are specialized vacuum tubes used in desktop computers for producing images. It is similar to the picture tube used in television sets. “We have been looking at theoretical models that will deconstruct the monitor to the level of CRT for re-use,” says Dr. Mathew Realff, an associate professor at the School of Chemical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. 

The reverse production system that is being designed for Georgia, has its applications elsewhere, and has generated interest nationally and internationally, according to Dr. Realff. Many multinational electronic firms like Hewlett- Packard and officials from Taiwan and Belgium are conferring with researchers for recycling options, he said. 

“The concept of reverse production systems is to essentially establish various points in manufacturing system so that we can recover the value in the discarded product as effectively as possible, both in terms of collection, logistics and processing costs” according to Dr. Realff.

So, the buzzword for scientists and industries alike is - working out the options for economically viable recovery efforts for e-wastes.

In addition, researchers at GIT are looking beyond stop gap measures like inter state trash transfers. With many states across the US, such as California and Massachusetts, who have banned their disposal in municipal solid waste landfills, it is a matter of time before other states take a cue and make solid waste landfills redundant. 

“The question is if you are in Georgia, should you be attempting to send your materials (waste) to Pennsylvania or Ohio [distance between Georgia and Ohio/Pennsylvania is about 1200 kilometers] and incur the logistics and transporting costs or should you be looking at establishing new capacity here in Georgia for the initial de-manufacturing,” Dr. Realff said.

However, ‘reverse production’ model is fraught with challenges and the “concept requires a lot of brand new thinking”, said Jane Ammons, a professor at the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and a member of the Georgia Computer Equipment Disposal and Recycling Council. 

Equipment obsolescence due to technological advances, such as increasing computer speed and memory, high definition television and flat panel computer monitors are likely to increase the discards of these items. While much older equipment will be reused or stored for some additional years after its useful lifetime, all electronic equipment will sooner or later be discarded, leaving behind a gargantuan pile of trash, for recyclers to handle. 

“Legacy products,” as Dr. Realff points out “have been manufactured over a significant period of time and waste treatment options for e-wastes vary. For example, compared to a television set built ten years ago, a present electronic equipment will have to be recycled differently because of the mixed variety of plastics present in it.” 

Plastics recovery, like the metal sorting, is an issue ostensible to both researchers and industry as a complex subject, according to Dr. Realff. “Plastic recovery [from the electronic equipment] is one area where significant development of technology is going to happen in the next five to ten years, and we are in the stages of developing this [technology],” he said. 

But even as the researchers are keeping the recycling issue buoyant, so far the track record for recycling personal computers is far from good. According to Dell, a computer manufacturing giant, only between ten to thirty percent of PCs sold annually are being recycled in the US.

Consumer surveys, done earlier by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, indicate that about six percent of households in the US have an item of equipment ready for disposal.

Even if technological advancements and models for recycling opportunities have begun to take shape, researchers like Dr. Realff are uncertain as to how the consumers will behave in the light of new technology.

“The biggest uncertainty right now is in estimating the number of televisions, computer monitors that people will be willing to recycle at various different schemes that could be developed for local collection,” Dr. Realff said. He adds that this uncertainty is compounded by the fact that, “even if you put a five dollar fee in recycling a cathode ray tube, are people going to shove it in their basements and not recycle it (electronic devices).” This amounts to new technology saddled with old problems. 

Researchers feel that lessons need to be learned fast to put in place a regulatory structure that will provide a new dimension to recycle e-wastes, not only for US but also for countries such as India where methods of disposal are very undeveloped and pose grave environmental and health hazards.