Stopping Electronic Waste

July 26, 2010 View all articles in General

E-waste is one of the lesser-known, yet fastest-growing, environmental disasters currently facing the world. Everyone knows plastic should be recycled and most are at least aware of how to do so, but many still don't even know what e-waste is.

What is E-waste

E-waste is short for electronic waste (e.g., old TVs, stereos, computers, etc.). Many consumers replace their electronic gadgets and devices within just a few years of purchase. Computers, for example, are often upgraded every two years, while the average life of a cell phone is much shorter. This means approximately 130,000 computers are thrown out every day, while over 100 million cell phones are thrown out every year.

Why E-waste is a problem

But safely dismantling old phones and computers is time-consuming. So many American electronics recyclers, including some that claim to recycle e-waste correctly, are actually illegally transporting this waste overseas. This means even if you're a part of the 20 percent using an e-waste recycling company, instead of simply tossing your old electronics into the dumpster, your waste may not be going where you think it is. Case in point: Guiyu, China's electronic waste village.

The peasants of Guiyu recover lead and bits of gold by burning laptop adapters and circuit boards in their home fireplaces; they live and work in e-waste. Guiyu not only has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world, women there are also much more likely to miscarry. The rivers are pitch black and drinking water has to be trucked in. Even after boiling, the well water is undrinkable. Camera-wielding outsiders are politely shown the way out by a police escort, and sometimes not-so-politely by paid gangs. Officials maintain the operation has been shut down and workers are unable to give comment.

There is an international treaty known as the Basel Convention that regulates the export of hazardous waste to developing nations, but the U.S. is the only industrialized country that refused to ratify it. Other environmental agencies already in place only monitor the export of individual types of e-waste, but not e-waste as a whole.

Recycle Electronics instead of throwing them out

E-waste Resources 

This means that the power to stop e-waste depends on who you trust to recycle your electronics. Greenphone.com will buy cell phones in good, working order and give them to overseas customers in need. Alternatively, Basel Action Network (or BAN) has put together a list of accredited, U.S. recyclers you can trust to correctly dispose of your electronics (www.ban.org).

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