Take a look around your home or office , and note all of the electronics. You’ll likely find computers, televisions, cell phones, iPods, printers, and copiers, along with many others. All of these high technology items will eventually fail, or become obsolescent, and what happens after that needs examining. Most electronics contain some fairly toxic materials, including mercury (the backlight of older LCD screens), lead (in solder), cadmium (in older batteries), along with a whole host of plastics and chemicals.
New models of almost all of these devices come out every year, or even several times a year. The average cell phone lasts for 18 months before being replaced, while the average household computer might be kept for another 12-18 months after that. iPods and similar devices have become almost disposable, with most being replaced after 1-2 years as well.
So the question becomes: What happens to all of this stuff? To the computers, iPods, old printers, VCRs, tape decks, and all the other technology items that rapidly become obsolete, or simply breaks down and the owners decide that it is better to replace (and upgrade) rather than repair.
It wasn’t that long ago that all of these discards would just end up in the landfill. But electronics and appliances are the fastest-growing segment of solid waste, and something more than plowing it all into the ground needs to be done.
Many government jurisdictions have passed laws requiring the recycling of e-waste, and instituted a recycling fee (tax) on the sale of all new electronics to cover their eventual recycling.
While no one can deny that this is a good idea, the question remains: What do we do with it, and how?
The way it is supposed to be handled by proper recycling firms in the developed world that can apply the most effective safety measures . In these facilities, e-waste can be disassembled properly, broken down into constituent components, either by hand, or through a barrage of sophisticated shredders and sorters. Of course, all of this costs money, and there are only a limited number of facilities available, and tons of trash. (Up to 50 million tons a year).
Instead, what ends up happening, all too often, is that pallets of e-waste will site around for months, until a broker, calling themselves a recycler, has amassed a sufficient amount, then it all goes into a container, and shipped off to India, China, or Kenya. There, local workers, with little or no safety precautions, will break the electronics down for as little as $2-$4 per day. This is dangerous, filthy work, and typically the sole piece of safety equipment used by the recyclers is a bandana wrapped around their nose and mouth. They work with blowtorches to remove PVC insulation from wires, acid to remove gold from circuit boards , breathe in fumes from lead, cadmium, bromides and a veritable alphabet soup of chemicals.
While many countries have signed onto the Basel Convention, which limits the export of e-waste to developing nations, the United States has yet to do so. Even at that, the Convention lacks accountability provisions.
This is complicated by the nations involved, who are needing the resources present in e-waste. The long-term health effects on the workers is a secondary concern.
Some manufacturers are dealing with this from their side, by using green-friendly materials and making their products easy to disassemble and recycle. There is even a green list of companies, ranking them on their environmental responsibility. That is where consumers can make themselves heard, by rewarding the responsible corporations by purchasing their products.