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Getting E-waste Right


We are getting the little things right. We dutifully recycle plastic bottles. We’ve started bringing reusable bags to grocery stores. We even cut those plastic six-pack rings like the old public service announcements used to tell us to do. More and more, consumers are making environmentally responsible decisions. Why, then, are we still failing on some of the bigger things?

In this case, our desire for new bigger things might be the source of the problem. In the past decade, televisions have grown bigger, then flatter, then bigger again. The emphasis is on the new: buy now, because your old television is clearly, decidedly obsolete.

The demand for the current and the top of the line strikes a chord especially in the hospitality industry. Hoteliers purchase new televisions not for their own personal enjoyment, but to offer amenities equal to, or greater than, those offered by their competitors.

The result is a product cycle that matches the pace of innovation: when manufacturers usher in new technology, hotels usher out older televisions, and these old sets have to go somewhere. Between consumers and businesses, an estimated 50 million tons of electronic waste is disposed of each year. Some of that is recycled properly. The rest is not.

Most E-waste Not Recycled Properly

In the United States, the numbers are particularly grim. Nearly 400 million units of consumer electronics are sold per year. Relatively light regulations and recycling standards result in the production of 3 million tons of e-waste annually. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 13.6 percent of all e-waste was recycled properly in 2007. The remaining 86.4 percent made its way into landfills, and the EPA estimates that e-waste is growing at two to three times the rate of any other waste source.  The numbers are staggering, and so too are the results. Old TVs and computer monitors contain lead, cadmium and brominated flame retardants; all of which are hazardous to personal and environmental well-being.

E-waste is a relatively new phenomenon, and as new models and new technologies emerge, it will continue to grow.

Many hoteliers have their hearts in the right places, trying to take care of e-waste responsibly. They’ll find a recycler who can take old electronics off their hands and let them go to work. Of course, there is a catch: according to advocacy group the Basel Action Network, 90 percent of the e-waste that is recycled is sent overseas. There, old TVs and computer monitors are disassembled without much oversight, and workers are exposed to a number of hazardous, harmful materials.

Developing countries have become ground zero for e-waste collection. For scant wages, workers receive instruction for improper, unsafe disposal procedures, while American companies have effectively and successfully outsourced their recycling problems.

Multiple Solutions for Hoteliers

Despite the doom and gloom, there are a multitude of solutions to the hospitality industry’s e-waste problem.

It starts with awareness: knowing a problem exists is the first step in solving one. That hotels upgrade their televisions is not an issue as long as their existing units are recycled properly. Hoteliers can do their part to increase the 14 percent of e-waste that ends up in recycling facilities, not landfills.

Then hoteliers can move to change a different statistic: the 90 percent of e-waste that is exported. When consulting e-waste recycling programs, employees must find how and where their televisions are being recycled. Instead of shipping off discarded units to uncertain futures and locales, hoteliers should seek out domestic recyclers and take care of their e-waste recycling with proven, safe commodities. Recycling isn’t difficult, and a good recycling partner should make it easier. Know where your e-waste is going and know what’s happening to it.

Environmentally responsible, eco-savvy hotels are in vogue right now, appealing to customers with promises of sustainable travel and accommodation. It’s a step in the right direction for the hospitality industry, and increasingly lucrative too—responsibility sells. Sustainable building materials, recycling services and even linen reuse programs are tangible ways for guests to see that their hosts are eco-conscious.

Green Hospitality with a Backbone

However, there is a difference between the appearance of “green living” and making it happen in actuality. This is where proper television recycling fits in. Green hospitality makes money, but it mustn’t be without a backbone.

Actual green hospitality outweighs the appearance of green hospitality, and not all recycling is created equal. As organizations hop on the sustainability bandwagon, it is more important than ever that recycling becomes permanent, not trendy. This means actively looking for and implementing recycling solutions, not simply shipping our problems overseas.

We’ve proven we’re ready for day-to-day change; we recycle and reuse more than ever. But it’s time we embrace long-term changes to routine. E-waste recycling, for most people and companies, is not a day-to-day occurrence, which means we should be ready to handle it when the time comes. We can make doing the right thing routine.

Mario Insenga is the president and founder of The Refinishing Touch. He may be reached by e-mail at president@therefinishingtouch.com.