Recent stories about electronics manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd. (publicly traded as Foxconn Technology Group) brought the world’s attention to the poor working conditions experienced by high-tech workers as they produce parts for many of the world’s electronics. But for the great majority of U.S. electronics, their end-of-life circumstances are often more grim than their beginnings.
It’s clear that the world’s appetite for electronics is growing. While sales for desktop computers have declined, cellphones and tablets continue to sell in greater quantities. IT research company Gartner, Inc. estimates that 1.8 billion mobile phone units, 303 million personal computers, and 184 million tablets were sold worldwide in 2013. Gartner predicts that mobile phone sales will rise to 1.9 billion and tablet sales to 263 million in 2014.
Mobile phones and tablets may not take up as much space in a landfill as a desktop computer, but more of them are thrown out each year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that while the average life of a desktop is around 12.25 years, the life of a mobile device is less than 5 years on average. Not only are record-breaking numbers of these devices being produced, they’re becoming the dominant electronic device of our time. They reach their end-of-life management stage in less than half the time as the former dominant device, the desktop computer.
Electronic waste already accounts for 1% to 2% of the solid municipal waste stream and is one of the fastest-growing categories of waste in the United States, according to the EPA. But the items considered to be e-waste (loosely defined as consumer or business electronics near the end of their useful life) are some of the most valuable—and toxic—items to be found in a landfill.
In a given pile of e-waste, one is likely to find both rare earth metals, such as tantalum or neodymium, and precious metals, including gold and silver. Large, expensive machines that are rare in the U.S. but relatively common in Europe can safely break down piles of e-waste to retrieve components and materials that can be reused or sold as commodities or scrap.
But machines aren’t the only way to break down e-waste into its valuable pieces. A fairly common tactic is to separate materials by hand. “There are so many chemicals in your average computer that to actually recycle that thing, to take it apart, would expose the worker to a variety of chemicals that have proven to be hazardous to human health,” says David Pellow, a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Because of this, 25 states in the U.S. have passed laws governing some aspect of e-waste, though the regulation levels of different states vary in scope. On top of the state regulations on e-waste, workers in the U.S. are protected by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) from being exposed to hazardous materials. Foreign workers in the countries where U.S. e-waste actually does collect, however, don’t enjoy the same protection.
Legally and illegally exported e-waste from the U.S. and Europe can end up in any of several major dumping grounds (Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; and New Delhi are major centers for e-waste collection) where the conditions surrounding workers and methods used for extraction range from unsafe to outright lethal. In these areas, Pellow says, “[P]eople are manually, with very basic tools, disassembling this waste and melting down various components that can be used in remanufacturing.” He says workers risk exposure to chemicals with little protection for their health and lack any kind of collective bargaining power they might use to diminish their exposure.
In Accra, piles of electronics set on fire to obtain copper wiring in many electronics are often tended by children. In other places, components of a circuit board are scavenged with highly dangerous techniques, including boiling to extract metals or using acid to expose gold.
Guiyu, China, has transformed into a massive e-waste remanufacturing center, with unsafe salvaging and storage practices resulting in highly elevated blood lead levels in more than 80% of local children. Measurements of the highly toxic dioxin compound in farmland soils of Guiyu indicate heavy contamination.
In 1989, countries from around the world gathered at the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal to reduce the flow of hazardous waste from developed countries to underdeveloped countries. Of the 179 countries that have signed the convention, there are only two holdouts in ratifying—Haiti and the United States.
The Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based nongovernmental organization, works to promote the ideals of the Basel Convention in campaigns worldwide. It was BAN’s documentary, Exporting Harm, that first shed light on the extent of the crisis that e-waste was having on Guiyu.
Despite efforts at the state and city level to curb the problem of e-waste, consumers and businesses aren’t getting the message. In 2009, the EPA estimated that of the electronics currently at their end-of-life management stage, by weight only 38% of computers were collected for recycling, along with 17% of televisions and 8% of cellphones. The rest ended up in regular landfills or were put into storage.
Even among the electronics that are claimed to be recycled, few actually avoid the e-waste piles in China, India, and Africa. John Kirsch, co-founder and SVP of business development at the New York City electronics recycling company 4th Bin, says even he has fallen victim to deceptive recyclers. “I had given my stuff to a company I thought was legitimate at one point and then I found out that they had just shipped it to China, which they basically lied to me about,” he says. There is little that can be done, Kirsch says, opining that even the few laws that individual states and cities manage to pass to regulate the practice tend to lack the teeth to enforce them, leading to many situations of duped would-be recyclers.