UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, September 2018

UCSF Services Provided to Tackle Mounting E-Waste Problem

According to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, 49 million tons of e-waste was discarded worldwide in 2016, and it’s a growing global problem. E-waste refers to waste electrical and electronic equipment, such as phones, computers, printers, keyboards, and digital cameras. You may be surprised to hear that household items such as televisions, toasters, electronic toothbrushes, and even large appliances like refrigerators and washing machines are also considered e-waste. E-waste includes any office or home item requiring a power source and at the end of its life—and any component of that item.

With more people purchasing mobile phones and other electronics, and products having a shorter life span than in the past, the amount of e-waste is increasing. Only 20% of it is currently being recycled properly, leaving most of it to end up in trash, be picked up by unregistered recyclers, and be shipped to developing countries. One problem with this is that e-waste contains several poisonous chemicals—such as mercury, lead, and cadmium—that leach into soil and water when these items are dumped in landfills and pollute the air when they’re incinerated. Another is the loss of the valuable resources e-waste contains; each year $65 billion worth of raw materials is lost when these items are discarded. This problem is compounded when people in developing countries try to recover these materials and are exposed to toxic chemicals in the process.

GreenCitizen notes that in the U.S. e-waste comprises 70% of our toxic waste, and an average of 220 tons is being dumped in landfills and incinerators each year, sending heavy metals and cancer-producing dioxins into our air and toxins, that cause birth defects and impair the body’s systems, into our drinking water.

To address these issues, the University of California (UC) has a system-wide policy requiring that all e-waste is disposed of properly, using a recycling vendor that adheres to the e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment, and recycling or breaking down all items within the U.S.

UCSF Recycles E-Waste Responsibly

In line with UC policy, and toward its goal of zero waste by 2020, UCSF provides several services to its community to ensure that university-generated e-waste is recovered and recycled in a responsible manner. The Logistics Department handles bulk items like refrigerators and all e-waste generated by the campus and medical center, and Recycling and Waste Reduction handles smaller items and e-waste from campus facilities like phones, computers, and printers. According to Daniel Chau, UCSF Recycling Analyst, in FY 2017-2018 the university recycled 189 tons of e-waste in total, 36 tons of smaller items from campus and 153 tons of larger items recovered by Logistics.

To recover all of this e-waste, Recycling and Waste Reduction offers various services; they provide special materials drop off spots for small items like phones and batteries, and they host e-waste collection events that accept larger items carried by hand, like computers, as well. Chau says they initiated these services to make it easier for people to recycle small items and not dump them on campus. Since then the number of illegally dumped electronics on campus has dropped dramatically. UCSF Logistics offers a pick-up service for anything too large to be carried into a collection event.

The medical center is currently working on a pilot to address recycling smaller e-waste items at Mission Bay and will be announcing those events as they are offered.

Chau also shared that, in addition to recycling, the university is trying to reduce the amount e-waste it generates by purchasing items that will last longer and/or have take-back programs.

What You Can Do with Your E-Waste

Chau notes that “we can limit our e-waste to begin with by being mindful of our purchases and considering the long-term costs when we make them.” It may even be possible to find environmentally-friendly options, like the new Nimble tech accessories.

When you do have items that are no longer useful or are at the end of life, here are some resources:

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