Sustainability 101

Fact Sheet: E-Waste (Electronic Waste) and Universal Waste

What is Electronic waste or E-Waste?

The EPA defines electronic waste, or e-waste, as used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life.

Examples:  Computers and peripherals (monitors, keyboards, printers, scanners, fax machines); televisions; small electronic equipment (VCRs, DVD players, portable digital music players, game consoles).

What is Universal waste?

Universal waste is a broad category generally referring to waste generated by households and many different types of businesses that contain hazardous materials.

Examples: Fluorescent bulbs, batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment.

How big is the problem?

In the U.S., a typical building generates close to one ton of e-waste every few months. (Here are two examples: 18 tons of e-waste collected from one building in the first two weeks of a new e-waste program; 2484 pounds of e-waste collected in two hours.)

The United Nations Environment Program calls e-waste the “fastest growing waste stream in the world.” According to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019 (about 7.3 kilograms per person, equivalent in weight to 350 cruise ships). It is estimated that the amount of e-waste generated will reach 74.7 million tonnes by 2030.

With many buildings beginning to switch to LED lights, an increasing amount of universal waste, particularly mercury-filled lamps, is being generated.


Regulations

Electronic Waste or E-waste:

Universal Waste:

NOTE: It’s also important to check city-specific mandates. Rules may vary based on the size and type of building or business.

What Should You Do?

E-waste and universal waste should not be disposed of as trash — they must be stored and removed separately from other wastes by a vendor licensed to handle them.

If you are a building owner/manager:

  • Confirm the rules in your jurisdiction to ensure continued compliance.
  • Review your building’s electronic waste and universal waste program to ensure maximum efficiency.  Make adjustments to pick-up frequency, tenant education, storage locations, vendors and other aspects if necessary.
  • Establish agreements with tenants. Confirm they are using the building’s program correctly. Where tenants elect to contract arrangements for their e-waste and universal waste, request that they provide a written plan to building management concerning the legal disposal of materials.
  • Request a certificate of recycling for every pick up.
  • Consider using certified recyclers.Currently there are two certification standards for e-waste: R2 (Responsible Recycling Practices) and e-Stewards®. Companies that adhere to these voluntary standards are assuring their customers that they meet specific standards.  Without this certification, it is difficult to know if the items are really being recycled responsibly, or if they are being mishandled, or even dumped in poor countries.
  • Establish a portfolio-wide, approved vendor list to help create a standardized system to track e-waste and universal waste across multiple properties.
  • Organize e-waste and/or universal waste drives several times a year (eg: on  Earth Day or America Recycles Day) to encourage recycling, and to raise awareness of the building’s e-waste and universal waste programs.
  • If you are renovating or relamping, remember to track where the e-waste generated by your project is going.  A contractor may not be aware of the rules specific to your building/location. Do not assume that they disposed of your e-waste properly. You could be penalized for their mistakes.

If you are a tenant:

  • Ask building management about the building’s electronic waste and universal waste disposal options. If you can and do decide to contract your own arrangements directly, be prepared to offer proof to building management that such materials are being properly handled by your contractor.

Additional Solutions

  • Look for mail-back programs like Terracycle, which offers e-waste Zero Waste boxes that you fill and ship back; Call2Recycle, which runs a similar program for batteries and cell phones; and companies like NLR and ALR for bulbs.

How is E-Waste Recycled?

While the process varies, in general, this is what happens to your e-waste after it gets picked up from your office/building and sent to a recycler.

  • Your old electronics might be inspected to see if any items can be resold or refurbished, or if any parts can be reused. They may be dismantled into material type – plastics, circuit boards etc.
  • Items that cannot be reused are generally shredded at a recycling plant. Many facilities use an optical sorting system to identify materials using a laser beam, and separate them into plastic, metal and computer chips.
  • The sorted materials are then sold globally, where they are recycled. E-waste can be a valuable resource since it is easier to extract some heavy metals like gold and lead from e-waste than from ore itself.  Some materials are recycled here in the U.S.

Learn more or WATCH how e-waste is recycled (VIDEO)

How is Universal Waste Recycled?

The process varies depending on the type of universal waste. Here is how mercury-filled lamps are generally processed:

  • The processing machine separates the lamp into its recyclable component parts.
  • It captures and filters the mercury vapor and mercury-rich phosphor powder so that it can be reused.
  • The remaining components (aluminum end-caps, glass) are then mechanically separated.

(VIDEO) Watch how the “lamp machine” works at recycler NLR or learn more at ALR.

 

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