Children root through the burning piles of plastic and wire, smoke searing their lungs as they scrounge for any little piece of valuable metal amidst the melted plastic and poisonous fumes. The scene just described occurs daily in third world and developing countries, and even in more industrialized nations such as China. Cargoes of old, outdated, or just plain unwanted technological devices arrive from wealthy Western countries like the United States and are deposited at often illegal sites where they are pulled apart by hand or burned in open pits, the impoverished workers collecting any re-usable material that can be sold and put back into the system where it will cycle through and again arrive at some foreign port where it will again be sifted through by hand. Clearly, discarded technology is a serious world problem, but it can be solved through simple, relatively easy steps that every citizen can take.
Electronic waste, commonly called “e-waste,” consists of discarded, broken, or obsolete electrical and electronic devices. And there is a lot of it. “Moore’s Law,” named after Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, states that semiconductor power will double every eighteen months to two years, ensuring that the average computer has a lifespan of about three years (Grossman 143-144; Carrol 2). Cell phones have a shorter life of about two years (Grossman 144). With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, it is no surprise that EPA estimates for 2005 found that in the United States alone, between 1.5 and 1.9 million tons of computers, TVs, VCRs, monitors, cell phones, and other equipment were discarded (Carrol 2). The UN report Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources states that China annually generates 500,000 tonnes of waste from refrigerators, 1.3 million tonnes from TVs and 300,000 from PCs, but America is still the world leader in the production of e-waste, with over three million tonnes projected for 2010 (Jones). Estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme put the total worldwide production of e-waste at twenty to fifty million tonnes per year, and the Wall Street Journal calls e-waste “the world’s fastest growing and potentially most dangerous problem”(Grossman 5-6).
But where does all of this waste go? Most of it ends up in landfills or is incinerated. In the United States, more than seventy percent of discarded computers and monitors, and over eighty percent of TVs, eventually end up in landfills (Carrol 2). On the whole, the EPA estimates that only fifteen to twenty percent of e-waste is recycled, with the rest going directly to landfills and incinerators (Wikipedia). And this waste stream contains many very valuable metals, most of which have to be mined with much financial and environmental cost. For instance, computer circuit boards contain expensive elements like antimony, silver, chromium, zinc, tin, copper, and even gold (Royte; Carrol 2). Sadly, about ninety percent of the metal used in electronics goes to landfills, incinerators, or other forms of disposal (Grossman 3). And this waste is very poisonous. Electronic devices contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. All of these are highly toxic, and can lead to serious ailments such as blood poisoning, abnormal brain development in children, nerve damage, and even cancer (Royte; Grossman 6). And the EPA estimates that electronic devices account for seventy percent of the heavy metals found in landfills (Grossman 7). Electronics also contain plastics such as polychlorinated biphenyls, a.k.a. “PCBs,” which release cancerous dioxins and furans when burned, and brominated flame retardants, which are neurotoxins to animals (Grossman 7).
Because of the serious problems that e-waste can cause when dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators, many governments, such as the states of California and Massachusetts, are cracking down on the dumping of e-waste (Carrol 3; Royte). But growing amounts of this waste are being shipped overseas, sometimes illegally. Under the guise of “recycling,” tons of electronic waste are shipped off each year and processed in countries with poor health, labor, and environmental laws, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast, or else at illegal sites, usually China or India (Carrol 6). This processing involves techniques such as burning away flame retardants, which releases deadly fumes, or pouring corrosive acid over circuit boards to retrieve bits of valuable metal. The laborers, many if not most of them children, sift through the piles of old TVs, computer cases, and masses of wire with their bare hands, exposing themselves to poisonous smoke and other toxins. And the toxic leftovers of electronics are not just a problem in third world countries. Lead-filled jewelry from China is a common problem in the United States, but the story that no one hears is that the most likely source for it is the solder in to make circuit boards in the US. The researcher who co-published these findings commented on his findings: “The U.S. right now is shipping large quantities of leaded materials to China, and China is the world’s major manufacturing center. It’s not all that surprising things are coming full circle and now we’re getting contaminated products back” (Carrol 8). This makes one wonder if maybe the lead found in Chinese toys that drew such criticism may have also originated in the US. Whether or not this most recent lead scare can also be traced back the US, the problem of e-waste toxins is clearly just as global as the trade itself is.
But just as the problem is global, so is the response. At the 1989 Basel Convention, one hundred and seventy nations passed requirement that developed nations alert developing to incoming hazardous waste shipments (interestingly enough, the US was one of three nations to only sign the convention and not ratify it). However, the terms of this convention were considered by many environmental groups and undeveloped nations to be too weak, and a 1995 amendment known as the “Basel Ban” was passed, banning hazardous waste shipments into poor nations. Though the ban has not taken affect as of 2008, the European Nations has added the requirements to its laws (Carrol 3). China, longtime electronics graveyard of the world, has also taken up the challenge, officially banning the import of electronic waste since 2000 (Carrol 4). Sadly, in spite of all of these efforts, tons of e-waste still pour out of Europe into developing regions, and China is still a major site for smuggled e-waste (Carrol 3-4).
Obviously, simply banning the dumping and trade of e-waste does not do much to curb its spread, simply because it has to go somewhere. Fortunately, there are many other options available, including simple steps that every, ordinary individual can take. One step is for manufacturers to make safer, less toxic, and more recyclable devices. Most electronic devices have batteries and other parts that are very difficult to dispose of, or even next to impossible, such as Apple’s iPad (Grossman 213-214). In the European Union, a “green design” of electronics is encouraged, “setting limits for allowable levels of lead, mercury, fire retardants, and other substances,” according to National Geographic (Carrol 3). This practice has not been very popular in United States however, but if legislation is too stifling on freedom, citizens can still create awareness of the subject, and request that local, state, and federal governments offer incentives for manufacturers to build safer products.
By far the biggest step that everyone can take is to reuse and recycle old electronics. As already mentioned earlier in this paper, electronics are expensive to produce and contain many valuable metals, so there is definitely an incentive for companies to recycle. Sadly, many companies claim to recycle, but this “recycling” actually involves shipping the waste overseas to the toxic labor camps, so consumers must be careful and choose the right recyclers. Many programs exist, and some, mainly those dealing with computers, will actually pay money to the consumer. One such program is the company Cash for Laptops, which was founded in 2001 and buys old laptops which they refurbish and sell (Prashant). Another company that has tried to curb the flow of e-waste through recycling is Hewlett-Packard, which as of 2006 has recycled more than 750 million pounds of hardware and print cartridges worldwide (Morgan). There is a small downside to HP’s program because the consumer has to pay fee ranging from thirteen to thirty dollars to have their device taken away, but this is offset by coupons for electronic gear that often is worth more than the consumer paid to have their old gear recycled (Haffenreffer). Also, many municipalities and communities are creating drop-off points where citizens can leave their old electronics to be recycled (Haffenreffer). Depending on one’s location, however, this option isn’t always the best as sometimes it involves a service fee (Grossman 213). The European Union has taken a more forceful approach to recycling through use of legislation and directives that manufacturers to collect and properly dispose of the products they market to consumers (Carrol 3).
Unfortunately, despite all of these methods, while in 2005 the total of used or unwanted electronics amounted to between 1.9 and 2.2 million tons, of that, “roughly 1.5 -1.9 million tons were primarily discarded in landfills, and only 345,000-379,000 tons were recycled,” according to the EPA (Prashant). And even of the products that are collected for recycling, sixty to eighty percent are sent to the labor camps in China, India, and Pakistan (Royte). Obviously, more effort needs to be put into recycling, both by government leaders and by average citizens. One of the biggest problems is awareness of the situation, as evidenced by a 2005 research study that found that 95 percent of Americans do not know what e-waste is, and 58 percent did not know about any electronics recycling program in their community (Grossman 11). Awareness of both the problem and the solutions needs to be spread, and recycling needs to be encouraged much more than it already is. But even with recycling, consumers have to be careful, because many companies that claim to “recycle” actually smuggle the waste out of the country to foreign labor camps, so it is important for consumers to do their research and actually find out what the company actually does with the old electronics it receives (Grossman 267-268). Fortunately, many legitimate agencies exist, and it is important for citizens to track down the agencies in their local area.
So, as one can see, electronic waste is serious global problem, and it does not look like it will be solved any time soon. But it can be solved, as long as everyone does their part. Governments need to keep up their pressure on controlling the global trade of e-waste, and manufacturers and designers need to be encouraged to create safer and more recyclable products. And the consumer needs to sell, reuse, or recycle their old appliances and electronics, and to spread awareness of the problem of e-waste. These steps are not hard. In fact, they are very easy and fairly low tech. But they are necessary if the problem of e-waste is to be solved, and I firmly believe that though the end of e-waste may still be far off, it is in sight. And with hard work, simple actions, and a strong conviction, the end will finally be reached.
Carrol, Chris. “High Tech Trash: Will your discarded TV end up in a ditch in Ghana? ” National Geographic.com. National Geographic Society, Jan. 2008. Web. 23 April 2011 URL: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/01/high-tech-trash/carroll-text/1
Grossman, Elizabeth. High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxins, and Human Health. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, May 2006. Ebrary. Web. 23 Apr. 2011
Haffenreffer, David. “Recycling, the Hewlett-Packard Way, CNNfn.” The America’s Intelligence Wire. Living Media India, 2003. AccessMyLibrary. 23 Apr. 2011 URL: http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-22405423_ITM
Jones, Daniel Christopher. “The global e-waste problem.” Business Management. GDS Publishing, 26 Feb. 2010. Web. 23 April 2011 URL: http://www.busmanagementme.com/news/global-e-waste/
Morgan, Russell. “Tips and Tricks for Recycling Old Computers.” SmartBiz.com. EZ Publishing, 21 Aug. 2006. Web. 23 April 2011 URL: http://www.smartbiz.com/article/articleprint/1525/-1/58
Prashant, Nitya. “Cash For Laptops Offers ‘Green’ Solution for Broken or Outdated Computers.” Green Technology
World. Technology Marketing, 20 Aug. 2008. Web. 23 April 2011 URL: http://green.tmcnet.com/topics/green/articles/37567-cash-laptops-offers-green-solution-broken-outdated-computers.htm
Royte, Elizabeth. “E-gad! Americans discard more than 100 million computers, cellphones and other electronic devices each year. As “e-waste” piles up, so does concern about this growing threat to the environment.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution, 2005. AccessMyLibrary. 23 Apr. 2011 URL: http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-9604019_ITM
“Electronic waste.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Mar. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2011 URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-waste