By Hannah Buoye
Laptops, iPods, cell phones, ink cartridges and batteries all contribute to our fast-paced, technology-driven lives. But how often do we stop and think about what our electronics are made from, or where they are disposed?
Wielding university purchasing power against the tides of electronic waste, University of California students have organized the Toxic-Free UC campaign, which focuses on sustainable electronics practices.
As of Mar. 22, the University of California became the first university to adopt a “green“ electronics purchasing and recycling policy. Student organizers, with the support of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), have worked to ensure that smart purchasing and proper disposal of electronics be a part of the Policy on Sustainable Practices on all 10 UC campuses.
Expanding on the policy, the Toxic-Free UC campaign has caused all UC campuses to commit to purchasing products strictly certified as Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) of a bronze level or higher. It also requires contracting with recycling companies that have signed the Electronics Recyclers Pledge of True Stewardship.
According to Maureen Cane, campus coordinator for SVTC, UC purchases over 10,000 computers a month. It also produces over a million pounds of electronic waste every year. Coupled with the electronics purchased by its 200,000-plus student body, Cane explained that the UC system and its students are a very powerful consumer group.
“Toxic-Free UC’s main goal is to decrease computer waste and increase smart purchasing with sustainable practices and labor laws in mind,” said Jen Roberts, co-chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of Student Coalition for Responsible Electronic Waste (SCREW).
Now that specific regulations for purchasing and disposing e-waste are in place, SCREW has moved on to the next stage of its campaign.
“The goal for this quarter,” Roberts continued, “is the education of students and community members and to get fliers out for where e-waste bins are located, what can be recycled and why.”
Reagan Chung, co-chair of SCREW, echoed the coalition’s new goals saying, “Implementation is the hard part. We want to let students know that there are e-waste bins on campus, and inspire them to be aware and concerned enough to take their waste to them.”
According to Cane of SVTC, the fact that the UC system is committed to only buying EPEAT-certified products and contracting with specific recyclers is a groundbreaking success.
Because of the influence the University already has over the electronics industry, the new policy is an important model for other large electronics purchasers, Cane explained.
“Electronic companies say that it is consumer demand that drives changes in their products,” Cane said. “The UC is one of the largest consumer groups and can drive companies to produce better electronics and take responsibility at the end of their use-life.”
As a large purchaser, the University has the power to negotiate with companies to include a take-back policy for old computers.
When the use-life of the computer is over, the companies are obligated to collect their products, thus putting the burden of disposal on the producing companies and not the purchasers, Cane said. He hopes that if companies are forced to consider the entire life cycle of their products, they will be more conscientious of the materials they use.
Roberts is also hopeful that this “UC law” will set a precedent for other universities and companies with significant purchasing power.
“If the UC can do it do it, the Cal States and Community Colleges can. Maybe even other states.”