Unfortunately, the crisis is more complicated than simple health risks. The electronics that we toss in the trash contain valuable copper, as wire and printed circuit board tracks, and other, more dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, lead, and thallium. The occupants of developing nations make a living burning machines to find the few valuable metals within the piles of dangerous materials. Acrid smoke billows in the faces of locals as they burn circuit boards and wires to extract precious metals. In US e-cycling centers, workers in HAZMAT gear carefully take apart electronics in well-ventilated workshops. In the developing world, adults and children alike dissect obsolete TVs, monitors, and hard drives for anywhere from two to six dollars a day. Making a living off of an e-waste dump is like searching for a needle in a dangerous and extremely poisonous haystack.
One of the worst such facilities is Agbogloshie dump, the largest electronic wasteland in West Africa. Located in Accra, Ghana, Agbogloshie is officially known as an electronic recycling center not an e-waste dump. The locals who scavenge the facility call the area around Agbogloshie “Sodom and Gomorrah,” after the Bible’s condemned cities, due to the high levels of crime and disease caused by the e-waste trade. United Nations scientists found that heavy metal levels in the soil average up to ten times the normal amount.This dump is not alone, according to the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the likeminded Electronics TakeBack Coalition; hundreds of containers full of electronic waste leave the US daily to head to countries like Ghana, Vietnam, China, and India.
Unfortunately, on this side of the world, it’s hard to be sure that you’re not inadvertently exacerbating the problem. The federal government has no official foreign policies on e-waste so there’s no way to be sure that your e-waste is being handled properly. When you go to an electronics recycling collection event, there’s no telling if that vendor actually plans to recycle, or to ship overseas. Although the e-waste problem gained international attention in 2005 and multiple bills have been put forward in Congress, nothing has passed on a federal level. There are federal “guidelines” for businesses wanting to be environmentally responsible, but no laws actually forcing them to do so. Furthermore, although sixteen states have implemented a ban on dumping electronic waste in domestic landfills they make no provision about foreign disposal, where most of the violations take place.
Some states have stricter rules for handling e-waste disposal at in-state facilities. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has employees vet the in-state e-cycling plants to make sure everything is up to par, and there is no unnecessary exportation of goods. Even still, states have no authority over any activity outside their borders. “Anyone who wants to put something on a shipping container and ship it out can, that’s not technically illegal,” said Massachusetts DEP program director Greg Cooper.
You can do your part to ensure your electronics don’t end up on a freighter headed toward Agbogloshie. As always, make sure you properly delete all of your personal information from your machines, and then – rather than take them to a recycling center – donate them to organizations that will reuse them. Cell phones donated to The Wireless Foundation, are given to the victims of domestic abuse as lifelines. Another group, Educational Assistance Ltd, gifts your computer to a needy student in the US. Online computer store, Newegg.com offers a trade-in program, where you can send your old computer for money towards a new purchase. The computers are cleaned and re-sold to other Newegg costumers as “used” or “factory refurbished.”
If your computer or cell phone really is fried, check with the manufacturer before you go anywhere else. Many of the big name electronics companies, like Dell and Apple, have programs in place for returning old electronics. These programs, many of which are monitored and regularly graded by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, are often the most secure programs available. Dell earned the highest rating with a B, while Apple only earned itself a C+. All else fails, bring your techno trash to your local Staples or Best Buy store, where they make sure obsolete electronics are broken down and recycled responsibly within US borders.
While some “recycling” centers will offer you money, remember, there’s a reason they can afford to do that. Think before you throw away.