Promoting the recycling of e-waste

April 17, 2012

Karen Pollard has a laudable goal: to increase the recycling of discarded electronic products in order to limit environmental harm and encourage reuse of valuable metals found in computers, televisions and mobile devices.

As a recycling expert with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Pollard has worked to raise awareness about the need for the proper disposal of electronic products, helped launch a voluntary recycling program for cell phones and sought to enlist industry as a full partner in recycling efforts.

Most recently, Pollard traveled to Mexico and China as part of an initiative by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to help organizations build comprehensive e-waste strategies, and to promote sound and safe practices for reusing, recycling and refurbishing electronic products.

“We want recycling to be done and we want it to be done right,” said Pollard.

The issue is of major consequence. Electronic waste often contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals that can create potential health and environmental hazards. A significant number of the discarded electronic products also are shipped to developing countries that lack the capacity to manage the waste safely.

(Environmental Protection Agency)

In 2008, Pollard spearheaded an EPA outreach campaign called “Recycle Your Cell Phone. It’s An Easy Call.” The campaign focused on building awareness of the cell phone recycling and donation opportunities across the United States.

The voluntary program used public service announcements and a series of podcasts to promote collection programs that were already in place by more than a dozen popular vendors, including T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and Best Buy. It highlighted the fact that proper disposal of cell phones is quick, charitable and in most cases, free of charge.

The effort was a start, but changing public habits has been a slow process.

“Today, people have multiple phones, their children have phones, and the life span of these devices is very short,” said Pollard. “It’s like climbing up a mountain, where someone keeps adding things to the top.”

Nevertheless, Pollard said the EPA has learned a great deal from the cell phone recycling program, and will continue to push forward. Pollard said that in order to successfully raise the number of phones recycled, “everyone needs to be involved.”

“We’re not going to stop. We intend to keep on working with recyclers and other folks to help us increase our recycling rates,” said Pollard.

According to the EPA, about 25 percent of the 2.37 million tons of unwanted electronics were recycled in 2009, the most recent year that data is available. This includes 38 percent of computers, 17 percent of televisions and only 8 percent of mobile devices.

As part of the EPA’s plan to increase electronic recycling, Pollard seeks to strengthen public-private partnerships, and she has won praise from industry for her efforts.

“She spent several years digging deeply into how industry works,” said Mike Watson, director of compliance at Dell Inc. “She’s able to strike a delicate balance in bringing people together from industry, from government and from conservation groups, and then helping us find common ground.”

Watson worked with Pollard for more than five years on a multi-stakeholder group that created best practices for the electronic recycling industry. Prior to that effort, there were no accepted standards for recyclers to follow, Pollard said.

Eric Harris of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. applauded Pollard’s ability to build consensus between the EPA and private industry.

“Karen’s hard-wired for this type of work,” he said. “She understands the technical side of this issue and she knows that policy is only as good as its implementation.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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