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Electronic Waste

The Legacy of the Digital Age


Ask yourself these questions: How many cell phones have you owned in your life? Televisions? MP3 players? Anything with a battery or an electrical plug? What happened to all of those things? 


Most of you will find you have had at least one electronic toy break or get upgraded. Some of you will find that you’ve simply kept that old piece of equipment (it’s probably somewhere under a bed or at the back of a drawer or closet). Others might have donated unwanted items. And others yet will have no idea what really happened to that piece of junk. Thus begins the tale of electronic waste.



Electronic waste (or e-waste) is defined as any broken or unwanted electronic appliance which has reached the end of its useful life. It includes cell phones, televisions, computers, refrigerators, hair dryers, and other consumer products. Globally, e-waste has dramatically increased over the past decade (and is continuously on the rise).


The United States leads in its production: in 2000, 2,124,400 tons of televisions, commercials electronics, and small household electronics were generated; in 2003, 133,000 computers were discarded by homes and businesses every day; 130,000,000 cell phones are discarded every year. Other developed nations, such as those of the European Union, Australia, Japan, and South Korea contribute to the vast pool of unwanted electronics. One of the primary destinations for e-waste is somewhere else. That’s right. It’s an export.


More than once the world has seen the waste from developed nations “disposed of” in developing nations. In 1986, the barge Khian Sea left Philadelphia with more than 14 thousand tons of toxic incinerator ash. Over the course of 16 years, the ship changed names multiple times and looked for somewhere to deposit its dirty cargo. Some of it was left in Haiti; some of it was dumped into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.


E-waste is following a trend along the same lines. The bulk of waste electronics has been shipped to China. In recent years, however, increasing amounts have been sent to India, Pakistan, Singapore, Mexico, Brazil, and Nigeria. Some argue that this is a great way to recycle electronics – although that desktop might not be the best anymore for you, it still has some life left. Or at an even more basic level, old electronics could be taken apart, refurbished, and reused! Seems logical. Unfortunately, that is an unlikely destiny for the majority of electronic equipment.


Of all the electronics traded, only 25% can be recycled or reused (it’s just enough to make the e-waste trade profitable). The remaining 75% is scrap that must be thrown out or incinerated. It is this 75% that has become a mountain of technological trash and a legacy of environmental toxicity for many developing nations.


The fallout from e-waste trade includes a variety of human and environmental health problems. In developing nations, workers, including women and children who earn an average of $1.50 a day for their labors, have no protective respiratory equipment or clothing and are continuously exposed to noxious fumes and substances. Most recycling involves physical dismantling using equipment such as screwdrivers and bare hands.


In China, printers are dismantled with screw drivers and paint brushes. Workers use their hands to wipe the toner into buckets. Acid baths are used to recover the precious metals from circuit boards. But when the baths are exhausted, the liquid generally ends up dumped on river banks or waterways, causing acidification of soils and the death of aquatic life.


After the copper is extracted from old cathode-ray tubes from computer monitors, the remnants covered in lead (that are considered a hazardous waste) are regularly left by the side of the road or are pushed into rivers. Heavy metals and toxins leach from e-waste into the ground, bodies of water, and subsurface water flows. Toxic chemicals take to the air through incineration of e-waste landfills (which are often simply piles on the side of a road).


As the e-waste trade has increased, increasing incidences of cancer and respiratory illnesses have resulted in China and Nigeria. Population size and health of aquatic life and other animals have declined. Heavy metals are taken up in plants and bioaccumulate farther up the food chain, wreaking additional havoc on human and environmental health.


To state the obvious - this is bad. In fact, it’s very bad. There are some policy mechanisms that have been put in place in efforts to stem the negative impacts of e-waste trade; however, they haven’t all worked. For example, in 2000, mainland China banned importing electronic waste. Unfortunately, many exporting countries, including the United States, do not honor that ban and continue to export to the willing buyers in China.


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was also instituted in an attempt to deal with the growing e-waste problem. Under the RCRA, it is illegal for companies to throw many types of waste electronic components in the trash. Certain e-waste exports are illegal under the RCRA, however, under that law, export is illegal if the items are marked for disposal. If the official export goal is “recycling,” e-waste can be legally shipped to an exporter’s heart’s content.


The glimmering policy hope has been the Basel Convention which was designed to cut down on the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. But as with so many other glimmering hopes, industrial lobbyists in the United States, Canada, and Australia have been steadily attacking it.


Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including the Basel Action Network and Greenpeace are doing their part to fight for effective policy, as well as increased consumer awareness. A few manufacturers have begun offering take-back programs through which they take physical responsibility for their products (basically they sell the service that the product provides and when the product is at the end of its useful life, the manufacturer takes said product back).


Here and there, electronics recyclers have popped up (although, beware: not all recyclers are created equal; while some truly do recycle the products you pay them to recycle, some do not or cannot and end up exporting to the same places as the other guys).  In a nut shell, not all is lost. But it is important to be an informed consumer. When you’re looking for a new electronic gadget, think about finding the greenest one you can. When you find the electronic product you want, use that gadget for as long as you can. Take care of it to ensure the longest useful life it can possibly have. If your electronics break or otherwise need to be replaced, look for a recycler in your area.


To learn more, check out How To Green Your Electronics and consider checking out and supporting the Basel Action Network and Computer Take Back.


(Images from Basel Action Network)


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