Consumers put a lot of value in environmentally friendly, or “green” products. They covet ENERGY STAR® appliances. BPA-free containers are in high demand. Superb gas mileage can turn a good car into a great one.
Yet even the greenest products eventually reach the end of their useful lives. When it comes to electronics, little thought may be given to their “afterlife” by those who dispose of them. Consumers care about how device disposal affects their health—and their wallets. But the green status of an electronic device isn’t only about its constituent parts or how it works—it’s about how easily it can be disassembled and disposed of.
If you’ve ever opened up a computer, you understand. Wires and circuit boards are comprised of thousands of materials, chemicals, and coatings that make disassembly not only time-consuming, but hazardous. Yet this electronic waste, or e-waste, must be taken apart before it can be recycled.
This added work to the recycling process leads some recyclers to cut corners. E-waste ends up in the hands of people eager to turn waste management into much-needed income, but with no means of safe disposal. When the new trade in Guiyu, China, began to make headlines, no one could deny the economic boom e-waste brought to the small city. However, the resulting pollution soured the growing industry, and caused the environment and citizenry to suffer.
E-waste is in limbo. Several countries are bound under international agreements to keep toxic waste out of the hands of developing and transitioning countries. Others, like the United States, have pledged support of the initiative, but have done little to create real change.
The Basel Convention
The largest piece of e-waste legislation comes from the United Nations. The Basel Convention was launched in 1989, in response to hazardous waste trafficking along international borders of more developed countries. But it didn’t reach full steam until the 1990s.
Basel’s key points come in two decisions: Ban Decision II/12 and III/1. Passed in 1994, Ban Decision II/12 prohibits the export of hazardous waste from countries belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries. Decision III/1 adds the European Union and Liechtenstein to the list, and amends the waste ban to countries that are not a part of the OECD or EU (plus Liechtenstein).
Unfortunately, the countries usually cited for exporting e-waste are the same countries bound by the agreement.
What’s Going on in the U.S.?
The United States, a member of the OECD, had two proposed bills in the House and the Senate to ban the export of e-waste. Both came to a standstill in committees, and were killed when the 112th Congress ended.
The picture is more encouraging at the state level. Twenty-five states have passed laws banning (some) electronics from landfills, providing collections for old devices, or mandating producers have a take-back program. In the 17 states who reported data, more than 1.8 trillion pounds of e-waste have been removed from the waste stream since the programs started. In 2011, California, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington brought in 327 million pounds of obsolete electronics for recycling.
While a few bumps have cropped up along the way, the market is catching on to green potential as well. Companies understand people put more stock in environmentally friendly products. Apple®, Samsung™, Hewlett-Packard, and many others have announced eco-friendly policies and goals. Major computer manufacturers have long since jumped on the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT®) bandwagon, the computer equivalent of ENERGY STAR.
Unfortunately, EPEAT and Apple have hit a snag. In July of 2012, Apple pulled its products from the database, owing to a particularly hard-to-disassemble Retina MacBook Pro® that fell outside the green certification agency’s guidelines. An iFixit© breakdown revealed the glued-in battery made the laptop particularly hard to take apart. Within a few days—following the threat of losing hundreds of thousands in bulk sales to governing agencies and corporations—Apple was back in the registry.
When the MacBook Pro in question was given a Gold rating by EPEAT later, iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens and others cried “greenwashing,” or labeling a product green when it really isn’t. The iFixit breakdown was a clear indication the computer could not be easily recycled, but the guidelines upon which EPEAT bases its rating are written in incredibly vague language.
The ostensible purpose of writing the guidelines with such broad language was to avoid hindering innovation. But in this case, the vagueness seems to hurt more than it helps. Many companies, given sufficient “wiggle room,” are likely to choose profits over eco-responsibility. Yet, as the world turns, so does the market, and it is clear that while some manufacturers are quick to speak and slow to act, others are committed to an environmentally responsible future.
What About Abroad?
As the developing world drags itself into the information age, unstable infrastructures, limited availability of resources, and a general lack of understanding are aggravating the challenges of managing e-waste. China—which receives tons of e-waste from the rest of the world—is quickly becoming one of the most prominent countries dealing with these challenges, generating electronic junk at an alarming rate.
Adam Minter, the writer of Shanghai Scrap, suggests that China’s biggest enemy is itself. As the Chinese catch up with the technology explosion, domestic waste is quickly becoming the nation’s biggest source of e-waste.
In India, officials are struggling against the informal recycling sector. Dumping e-waste outright was outlawed in May of 2012, but getting people to recycle through formal channels is proving a challenge. Scrap dealers pay residents by the kilogram to take e-waste away. Legitimate recycling plants won’t pay.
Caught between a desire to do what’s right and what is profitable, these countries (and their citizens) are often left with short-term gains and long-term woes.
Does E-Waste Recycling Do Anything?
That remains to be seen. Getting reports of the actual amount of e-waste going from country to country is tough—especially when both the transport and the waste itself sometimes fail to qualify as “legal.” Under the weight of international attention, the U.S. and some of their OECD counterparts are shaping up. Even non-OECD countries are implementing their own measures to solve the problem.
According to Minter, Guiyu residents complain they can’t get their hands on e-waste from the EU and U.S., thanks to the regulations set in place.
In the informal sector, “recycling” continues. These people rely on e-waste—the thing poisoning them—to stay alive. Burning some computer chips and making acid baths to strip wires are the difference between going to bed hungry or full. The real test will come when people in the Guiyu area understand the damage they’re doing to health and home, and are forced to make some hard choices.
As formal recycling takes its first steps overseas, it’s more important than ever to make sure you know where your “end of life” electronics are finishing their lives—and whether they will add to the problem of global e-waste, or find new life in recycling and reclamation.