It’s become exceedingly difficult to talk about electronic waste. Much of the modern world has become inured to rampant pollution and waste of precious resources. Couple that with how vital electronics are to society, and you have a lot of heads turning the other way. More than 53.6 billion pounds of electronics were at the end of their life cycle in 2009. Only 25% were recycled.
Disposed of improperly, discarded electronics can poison air, water, and soil. Sending your electronics to a dump instead of a recycling center wastes precious metals like copper, gold, and palladium. There is no good reason to dump these materials whole, especially for the price that even an ounce can fetch on the market.
But even when electronics are “recycled,” they don’t always end up in the best hands. E-waste is exported out of the country with alarming frequency, and the United States isn’t the only culprit. Other developed countries are doing the same thing, and hundreds of thousands of tons of e-waste are ending up in developing countries.
The global scope of e-waste can be overwhelming. It’s incredibly hard to fathom how widespread the damage is. To understand, it’s best to break it down piece by piece.
Photo Courtesy Shack Dwellers International
E-waste pollutes in two ways. Many electronics end up in the dump, where they decompose or are incinerated, releasing toxins like lead, cadmium, as well as dioxins and furans associated with halogenated flame retardants.
You may feel you’re going the better route by turning your electronics over to a recycling facility. However, some recyclers export electronics to developing countries, who dismantle the products for precious metals, polluting those areas in horrific ways.
This pollution takes years—and millions of dollars—to reverse. In Accra, the capital of Ghana, the Agbogbloshie slum has become a scrap of hell on earth. Some residents call it “Sodom and Gomorrah.” On what was once pristine wetland, black ash and burning plastics have transformed the landscape into a wasteland. Children run magnets through the dust, in hopes of collecting precious scraps of iron to sell.
The Odwa River runs directly past the slum, and deposits into Korle Lagoon. Sadly, this isn’t just a dead body of water. Theo Anderson, a local ecologist, said, “If you fall in there, you’ll be dead in minutes.” About 57% of Accra’s 1.7 million residents—969,000 people—live in the catchment of Korle Lagoon. Contained, it might not be as dangerous. But the poisoned lagoon waters run directly into the Gulf of Guinea. You can see the spreading contamination of the lagoon courtesy of Google’s satellites:
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For Guiyu, China—the now-infamous center for the world’s electronic waste—the same kinds of pollution are a major issue. About 200,000 people live in Guiyu, working for 5,000 recycling companies. They aren’t the only ones affected by their work. The Lianjiang River, the third largest river in the Guangdong province at nearly 59 miles in length, begins in Guiyu. About 30% of the region’s agriculture relies completely on the Lianjiang.
More than half of sediment and water samples taken at 30 stations along the Lianjiang, from Guiyu all the way down to Haimen Bay were found to contain “severe” copper, lead, nickel, cadmium, and mercury contamination that exceeded safe drinking water standards. Local produce—staples like rice, lettuce, and broccoli—are tainted with high levels of these heavy metal contaminants.
Photo Courtesy Greenpeace India
One of the most disturbing aspects of e-waste is the devastating effect on local populations. Guiyu, China is the hub for the West’s technological junk, but the damage is so much more widespread, and not confined to a few countries. E-waste recycling goes largely undocumented in Nigeria, Brazil, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, Peru, Colombia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Pakistan.
Beyond the damage to the people, severe damage to the environment affects quality of life of an area’s inhabitants. Nothing speaks to that more than the crisis faced by both Manila and the Philippines as a whole. Pier 18, near the once-notorious Smokey Mountain dump, is home to an expanding slum that lives off the waste in Tondo, Manila’s largest district.
Tondo is home to more than 590,000 people. Because of excessive and poisonous dumping, major sources of water like Pasig River and Manila Bay have been corrupted. In 2009, Manila mayor Alfredo Lim prohibited swimming in Manila Bay, owing to the uncontrolled dumping of garbage and hazardous chemicals in the water. To be deemed fit for swimming, there has to be 7 mg of dissolved oxygen per liter in the water. The Pasig’s water only has 1.68 mg per liter.
In 2011, scientists in Zhejiang, China, assessed the health of children in Luqiao and Longyou. Luqiao, a lesser-known center of e-waste recycling, is one of the main city zones of Taizhou, and home to more than 429,000 people. Owing to the contaminants directly related to e-waste, children in Luqiao exhibited much higher instances of skin disorders, respiratory problems, and stunted development. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)—a “probable” carcinogen—found in blood samples in Luqiao were double those found in Longyou.
Photo Courtesy Greenpeace India
The root of the e-waste problem is a familiar one—money. The health and environmental standards of developed nations make it expensive to recycle electronics. While some recyclers have stepped up to meet the demands of safe recycling, others have not been so honest.
Some recyclers may not be meeting environmental or safety standards. They might say “recycled in the U.S.,” and sell the e-waste they collect to recyclers who export overseas. Two executives of an e-waste recycling company were convicted on December 21, 2012 on federal charges that included lying to customers and making a $1.8 million profit on illegal shipments of more than 100,000 cathode ray tubes (the old computer and television monitors made with lead) to China.
Both executives face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine each for seven fraud accounts, as well as additional time and fines for obstruction convictions. The company faces a $500,000 penalty for each fraud count, and at least a $500,000 fine for exporting illegal waste.
Much closer to home, middlemen in Texas drive scrap monitors and keyboards a few miles south of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be dismantled cheaply. Their suppliers are sometimes recyclers who want to claim they do not export potentially hazardous waste.
Deeper in Mexico, residents of Naucalpan de Juárez, near Mexico City, are falling victim to airborne lead poisoning. A SLAB recycling plant in the area is giving off what locals call a “putrid mist,” most likely the outcome of an uncontained smelting and refining process used to brick lead once it has been collected. At a nearby children’s playground, soil samples had lead contamination five times over the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Mexico’s environmental and health standards are less strict than those in the U.S., making the expensive recycling process more profitable. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the EPA reported 377,000 and 429,000 tons of spent lead-acid batteries (SLABs) were exported to Mexico in 2011, respectively. Based on the discrepancy between the numbers, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation suggests that more than 52,000 tons of SLABs have gone over illegally.
While the 52,000 illegal SLABs are disturbing, the legal ones are even scarier. Some U.S. recyclers own plants south of the border, where environmental regulations are a lot less strict. According to regulations, exporting recyclers have to report their estimated exports for the coming year to the EPA. The reports are sent to Semarnat—Mexico’s EPA equivalent—to be approved before shipping. In 2010, no shipments were denied.
How can you help?
It’s difficult to imagine anyone willingly agreeing to compromise the health and safety of millions of people by introducing into the environment bioaccumulative heavy metals that can render local water and soil sources useless for years. Every day, that damage grows along with the toxic residue.
Fortunately, measures can be implemented to combat this contamination. Getting your e-waste safely recycled is a surefire way to keep toxins out of the waste stream. E-Stewards®, supported by the Basel Action Network, an organization dedicated to fighting e-waste, is an international certification body that monitors recyclers. They provide a strict list of qualifications for a truly green and safe recycling facility. You can find a list of certified businesses and locations, and the process for certification on their website.
As part of the process, you can also upgrade your office to digital and virtual solutions to reduce the amount of equipment you use. For example, recycle your old fax machine and turn to online fax services instead. Recycle the energy hog CRT monitors and upgrade to LED monitors that use much less energy.
To make sure your batteries are staying in safe hands, Call2Recycle® is an e-Stewards recognized program that provides resources for consumers and businesses, news, and a recycler locator. Greenpeace provides a rating system and report card for green electronics by manufacturer, if you’d rather just buy green. Every effort you make, no matter how small it may seem, helps to improve the environment, and keep e-waste from damaging communities, and the lives of the people who live in them.