San Diego Union Tribune
By Jonathan Sidener
By Jonathan Sidener
January 22, 2006
Don't throw away that dead battery, old cell phone or broken digital camera. As of Feb. 9, it will be illegal to send household electronic waste – e-waste – to California landfills.
Batteries and consumer electronics, along with fluorescent bulbs and thermostats, contain low levels of hazardous metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, which can contaminate soil and water. Those products and others classified by the state Department of Toxic Substance Control as "universal waste" will have to go to a recycler or household hazardous waste collection center.
How to recycle
For information on locations for recycling or on properly disposing of household electronics, contact: www.earth911.org or (800) CLEANUP.
Similar regulations have banned TV sets and computer monitors from the state's landfills since 2001. The e-waste and other items have been classified as universal waste since 2002, but homes and small businesses were granted an extension through Feb. 8 of this year.
The term universal waste is used because these items are found in a multitude of locations, essentially every home and business, not from a single place such as a factory.
Despite the sweeping changes in the way Californians must dispose of such products, residents have received little, if any, notification about the new rules from either the state or San Diego County, which will oversee universal waste collection locally.
Officials don't expect people's waste-disposal habits to change overnight. And they say they are counting on voluntary compliance – not enforcement – to keep toxic metals out of landfills.
"We're not going to hire a bunch of garbage police to rummage through people's trash and see whether Joe and Sally California threw away three batteries," said Ron Baker, a spokesman for the state agency.
"In general, the people of California care about the environment," Baker said. "If we tell them why we're doing this, that we don't want these contaminants re-entering the environment, and if we tell them where to dispose of the items, I think we'll see a major change within three to six months."
Baker said a study of pollution in San Francisco Bay suggested that the leading source of toxic metals was universal waste.
There is no definitive list of products that qualify as universal waste.
But San Diego County environmental officials say the category appears to cover anything that contains a circuit board – from electric watches and alarm clocks to electronic toys, VCRs, even novelty greeting cards that play a tune when opened. Circuit boards contain lead solder and copper, which can leach into the environment when the boards decay over time.
Electronics, filled with potentially toxic metals, are a staple of modern life, from talking dolls and singing fish to video game systems, boom boxes, portable CD players and remote controls for nearly everything, not to mention all of the gadgets the remotes control. And all of these devices contain circuit boards, batteries or both.
The Department of Toxic Substance Control has tested circuit boards from several products – laptop computers, LCD monitors and plasma TVs – and all exceeded limits for lead and copper.
Despite the results, Baker said his agency hasn't concluded that all electronics should be classified as universal waste. He said that the agency is testing products and that those that exceed levels for hazardous metals will be added to its list.
So far, these products have been deemed universal waste and must be recycled or taken to a household hazardous waste collection center beginning next month:
Common batteries such as button batteries, AA, AAA, C and D cells, but not car batteries, which are already regulated
Electronics such as TVs, computer monitors, computers, printers, VCRs, cell phones, telephones, radios and microwave ovens
Novelties such as greeting cards that play music when opened and most sneakers with flashing lights in their soles
Products on the list that contain mercury include:
Fluorescent light tubes and bulbs, and several other types of bulbs such as high-intensity discharge, metal halide, sodium and neon
Electrical switches, relays, clothes irons, silent light switches
Mercury gauges, which are often found in barometers, manometers and blood-pressure monitors
In addition, aerosol cans that are not empty are considered universal waste.
As the Department of Toxic Substance Control adds to its list of items considered universal waste, others are proceeding with a broader definition.
"It's my interpretation that all electronics are universal waste," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. "Every single device DTSC has tested has been found to be a hazard."
Murray said it was surprising that officials have not publicized the new requirements. He said officials and groups such as his have been focusing on computer monitors and TVs, which made up nearly half of the estimated 515,000 tons of e-waste sent to California landfills in 2004.
Since universal waste accounts for the other half of e-waste, the change in household-waste regulations next month probably deserved a higher profile, he said.
San Diego County environmental health specialist KariLyn Merlos agreed with Murray's interpretation that all consumer electronics are universal waste. Merlos said the regulations put the burden of determining whether an item is universal waste on consumers. To make things less confusing, all electronics should be recycled or taken to a municipal collection center, she said.
Merlos said that although her department has not publicized the new rules, it has worked to make consumers aware of the issue. She said the county and its cities have been encouraging residents to properly dispose of all the universal waste items at local household hazardous waste collection sites.
"We've been promoting the recycling of all these items as part of our general household hazardous waste collection," Merlos said. "We're already doing universal waste collection."