While most of us – especially if you are taking the time to read this blog – pride ourselves on knowing the gist of what’s going on in the world, there is know way we could ever even get close to knowing everything. In fact, I find that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. Today I’m going to touch briefly on the issue of electronics - and where they go once we are done with them.
Most of you are reading this entry on your personal computer. But what happens to this computer when you get a new one, say, a few years down the road? Perhaps you will take it to a place that recycles electronic waste? Or maybe just leave it at your parents’ house; they’ll get rid of it for you. It turns out that, based on well-informed recycling industry sources, between 50 to 80 percent of electronic waste taken to be “recycled” in the western US is sent to less developed nations overseas, such as China, India, Ghana, and Pakistan. Lead, cadmium, mercury, and PCBs (poly-chlorinated biphenyls), are a few of the toxic chemicals found in e-waste such as circuit boards, computer batteries, printer cartridges containing toners, and flat-screen monitors. While the sources and effects of each substance are too long to list, cadmium, for example, can be found in SMD chip resistors, infra-red detectors, and semiconductor chips. It is toxic and accumulates in the body, especially in the kidneys.
The problem lies mainly upstream, at the production stage. Widely used electronics are full of toxic chemicals and are simply not produced in an eco-friendly way. And there is little motivation for this to change; with the cheap labour prices and inadequate environmental regulations found in many third world countries, not to mention the lack of resistance to these practices from the US government, where’s the push for new, more environmentally responsible solutions? In the United States, it’s just not there. The country refused to be a part of the Basel Convention, an international treaty created by the Basel Action Network (BAN), which in 1994 banned the export of all hazardous wastes from rich countries to poor countries. They are the only developed country that did not sign.
Another disappointing fact is that not all of this waste is actually waste. Data has shown that of all the recycling collected in one day, more than 50 percent of the computers brought in are in fine, working condition. These computers pour in due to the rush to keep up with the latest and most up-to-date technology, which is a difficult task in the 21st century.
But, one might think, how do such disturbing practices manage to slip under the radar, especially in the 21st century? And in a country as developed as the United States? And this particularly sad, seeing as they were the first country to recognize “environmental justice,” meaning the right of everyone, regardless or socio-economic status or location, to be exposed to the same environmental risks.
While there are a few safe options available for the domestic recycling of these products, it is not economically advantageous for most American companies to use these methods. It is much cheaper and easier to dump them in poor countries, where locals use unsafe methods to extract valuable materials and then sell these materials to scrap buyers, in turn exposing themselves to a slew of toxic substances.
These locals are choosing between “poison and poverty.” I urge you to make responsible decisions: Replacing electronics should only be done when it is absolutely necessary. We also need to push for new technologies to be made in a more efficient and sustainable fashion; without such, this trend will only magnify.