What an E-waste

Electronic goods often meet a bad end, even if they're properly recycled

By Mark Anderson

Consumer electronics, critics charge, are designed for the dump. The latest gizmo enjoys a year or two of cutting-edge relevance and another two to five collecting dust. Then we throw it away. In the United States alone, 130 000 computers and more than 300 000 cellphones are trashed each day.

The discarded stuff typically goes to landfills (often illegally), where lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and other toxic and carcinogenic materials leach out from it. And donating obsolete products to the developing world is sometimes even worse.

As a new Web film, The Story of Electronics, graphically illustrates, all too often your supposedly "e-cycled" iPod or cathode ray tube ends up on a slow boat to China, India, South America, Africa, or Southeast Asia. There they come to black market scrap heaps where low-wage workers use alarmingly hazardous techniques—open coal fires, medieval acid baths—to extract a pittance of precious metals from circuit boards and soldered wires. In the process the workers, sometimes including children, release Superfund-level quantities of toxic waste into the environment.

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition keeps tabs on aboveboard e-cycling programs with some retailers (such as Staples and Best Buy) and in 23 U.S. states, while private organizations like Call2Recycle and e-Stewards help consumers find ethical private e-cyclers. Nevertheless, tons—literally—of improperly e-cycled goods make their way through organized-crime and other shady global networks.

In a 2009 report, Interpol described a disturbing new trend: brokers from West Africa and Asia traveling to developed world "e-cycling" centers to bid on e-waste for nefarious extract-and-pollute dumps in their home countries. According to Interpol, waste tourism is a small but growing US $3 million business.

Thanks to its massive black market e-waste dump, Guiyu, China, has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the most polluted town in the world. Local water has long been undrinkable, while the rates of miscarriage and premature birth are much higher there than in a control group from a neighboring town. At least 70 percent of the town's children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. On a "hazard quotient" scale of 1 (somewhat toxic) to 10 (very toxic), Guiyu scores 50.2.

Indonesia/United States
In March, the environmental watchdog organization Basel Action Network, in Seattle, alerted authorities to nine Indonesian shipping containers full of old CRTs that it says a Massachusetts e-cycler was sending to third-world dumping grounds. By one estimate, 80 percent of U.S. e-waste is disposed of unsafely on American shores or sent overseas into the e-waste black market.

United States
In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) posed as a company in Hong Kong offering to buy from U.S. e-cyclers—as real-world e-waste brokers do—and found companies from California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington lining up to ship their "green" e-waste into the global black market. Of the 43 e-cyclers tracked by the GAO, 42 kept e-waste shipments "below the radar."