While recycling your electronics is important, there is actually a darker side of e-waste that you need to be aware of: the outsourcing of this process to developing countries. So, what makes our old electronics hazardous? The list is long, but it includes lead, flame retardants, chromium, PVC, mercury, cadmium, barium and many more. When simply dumped into a landfill or on an empty lot, these products can leach into the local water supply. If workers hired to recycle the products aren’t equipped with proper safety equipment, they can be exposed to unsafe levels of these toxins. The Basel Action Network (BAN) has uncovered numerous instances of toxic waste dumping in developing countries in Africa and China. A 2002 report, “e-Junk Explosion,” details what members of BAN discovered when they visited China. Jim Puckett, a BAN coordinator at the time, describes what he saw in the Chinese town of Guiyu:
“The turnover is amazing,” Puckett says. “The sheer number of trucks, the number of people involved, a constant flow of smashed computers. None of it is refurbished: the goal is to get as much steel, plastic, copper, and gold as you can. We never saw leaded glass of the CRTs being recycled: the CRTs were simply being dumped after the copper coil was pulled off. This was formerly a rice-growing area. Now the irrigation ditches are all massive dumps full of unusable CRT glass and other computer waste.”
ban-china-child-computer-recycling The picture accompanying the report included a young child playing barefoot on a pile of smashed computers. While BAN’s investigations have led to the cessation of e-waste exports by many companies, the problem still persists. Last September, BAN discovered that there are still tens of thousands of tons of electronic waste from Scotland being dumped in Africa and China. Unfortunately, the transport of these goods from Scotland to developing nations is being carried out by criminal institutions and thus more difficult to regulate. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency is trying to put a stop to this practice and although it has successfully intercepted shipments, many more still get through. There are strict requirements for handling electronic waste here in the U.S., including the requirement to use certified hazardous materials experts for some aspects of the process. These requirements are in place to protect both the worker and also the environment, but once e-waste leaves the U.S. this protection ends. When you research an e-waste recycler, make sure you find one that uses U.S.-based companies for the entire process to ensure that your old computer doesn’t end up as a playground for children in developing countries.