I’m writing this blog on a computer that, once I hit publish, can make it instantly available to potentially millions of computer screens worldwide. The trouble is this computer may be considered obsolete in a couple of years. So, when it needs to be replaced, where will it go? Possibly to Ghana or China, where low-paid workers may unsafely handle toxic substances like Cadmium, Selenium, Lead, Lithium and Arsenic. That’s why two U.S. Congressmen (Gene Green of Texas and Mike Thompson of California) just introduced legislation that would prohibit export of hazardous electronic waste to developing nations and promote recycling jobs in the United States.
Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network (named for the 1989 United Nations’ Basel convention) says the United States is the only developed country that has not signed a treaty on the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste, known as e-waste.
“So what we’re trying to do in the United States right now, which is really the worst perpetrator of this dumping of electronic waste globally, is to get legislation nationally which would mimic what would have happened had they ratified both the convention and the ban amendment. This new legislation, which is going to be introduced today, will put a full ban on all hazardous electronic waste being sent to developing countries from the United States.”
When people recycle their electronics, the expectation is the reusable bits will indeed be reused. But according to Puckett, much of it is sent to Asia and West Africa. Workers may recycle parts of, say, a laptop. But the process, he says, is neither safe or environmentally friendly.
“It’s just done on the street in open burning, the cracking of monitors with hammers, burning of the circuit boards to get the solder off so they can remove the chips, throwing chips into an acid bath, flushing all the acids into a river. ..Now the data is in that there have been tremendous health impacts. Some of the highest levels of dioxins ever recorded. The groundwater in this area of China called Guiyu is completely shot. Likewise in Ghana, they’re finding precursors to cancer, they’re finding high levels of lead in the blood of children, etc.”
Despite the lack of oversight, some companies are choosing to recycle responsibly through a program called e-Stewards.
To gain certification, e-Stewards cannot export hazardous electronic waste to developing nations for recycling. They also adhere to strict standards on managing and recycling electronics for the safety of the worker and the environment.
Some other lawmakers and organizations are also suggesting a mandatory take back program in which the makers of electronics would be responsible for end of life recycling. Some companies like Dell Computers already have such recycling programs. So, perhaps the hardest entity to convince about recycling electronics responsibly will be the consumer.
The Electronics Takeback Coalition says more than 80 percent of discarded electronics in the United States end up in the trash. And, despite strict rules to the contrary, the European Commission says about two-thirds of their e-waste is going to landfills or sub-standard treatment sites outside the E.U.