Rising levels of hazardous electronic waste is putting workers in developing countries and the environment at risk. Though some of the disused computers, cellphones, televisions, and other products are locally generated, the majority of the e-waste is being sent there from the developed world, especially the U.S.
According to a study published in June by the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the developed world has in the past exported an estimated 23 percent of its electronic waste to seven developing countries. The growing demand for electronics and the increasingly short life spans of these devices means e-waste isn’t going anywhere and speedy solutions to the problem are hard to come by.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American household owns more than 20 electronic products. Several states have banned disposing of such products in the same way as conventional trash, and the EPA strongly encourages recycling. However, the problem lies in the fact that when a person recycles a television, for example, there’s a chance it could end up exported to a country like China, India or Nigeria. Once there, workers at informal recycling operations often use crude, hazardous techniques to extract valuable metals from the equipment and then burn what’s left. However, the processes to get those valuable materials often entail exposure to heavy metals like lead and mercury which can obviously be harmful to the workers. Handling e-recycling domestically could ensure safer procedures for the environment and workers but would come at a price, as it often costs more to process these devices than the materials are worth.
It’s been argued that recycling electronics could help developing nations transcend the “digital divide,” as well as grow information and communications technologies in places that need to catch up. The EPA, one of the lead agencies on the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship established by the Obama administration, recognizes the potential benefits of e-recycling and encourages the practice over allowing electronic junk to pile up in landfills. Though the agency also has “serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics, especially discarded electronics or e-waste, both domestically and overseas, that results in harm to human health and the environment,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in an email.
Studies done by the U.N. determined that the amount of e-waste generated per person in the United States is much higher than other countries. In 2012, each person generated about 30,000 kilograms of e-waste in the United States, compared with 5.4 kilograms in China.
“Although there is ample information about the negative environmental and health impacts of primitive e-waste recycling methods, the lack of comprehensive data has made it hard to grasp the full magnitude of the problem,” said Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of the U.N.’s Solving the E-Waste Problem (STEP) Initiative.
There is a long way yet to go to solve the e-waste problem but there is still things we can do to help. For example, consumers can make sure their electronic waste is handled properly by bringing old devices to a recycling facility certified under the e-Stewards program, a voluntary program that certifies that facilities are in full compliance with the Basel Convention.