The electronics recycling process has always left me wondering if all of our electronics gets recycled properly. There are so many bits and parts to electronics, it’s hard to believe that there would be no trash leftover to end up in the landfill. In recent years, with documentaries revealing where our old electronic end up, it’s a bit discouraging for me to invest in any new electronics. Although it’s an uncomfortable reality, I prefer to be informed more than leave my understanding in the hands of the media or brush it off. I like to find out truths no matter how painful it can be. This knowledge also helps me shape the decisions in my life so that I can make more informed decisions for my home and family in the future. I thought I would post some information and facts about electronic waste for anyone who might want to know the ugly truth.
- Electronics are Difficult To Recycle
- Recycling electronics isn’t like recycling cardboard. These products are not easy to recycle. Proper and safe recycling often costs more money than the materials are worth. Why?
- Electronics are not designed for recycling
- Materials used and physical designs make recycling challenging. While companies claim to offer “green electronics,” we are a far way from truly green products.
- Many electronic products are designed for the dump. They have short-life spans, or become obsolete quickly. They are often expensive to repair, and sometimes it’s difficult to find parts. Many consumer-grade electronics products are cheaper to replace than to fix even if you can find someone to fix it. Because they are designed using many hazardous compounds, recycling these products involves processing toxic material streams, which is never 100% safe.
- Some of the problematic toxic materials that must be removed before recycling are lead in cathode ray tube (CRT) TV monitors and mercury lamps in LCD screens, as well as PVC, flame retardants, and other toxic additives in plastic components..
- Before electronics companies can make the claim that they are green and sustainable, they must shift away from producing “disposable” products designed with a limited lifespan (planned obsolescence) and towards products that are designed to last. Instead of purchasing products with high failure rates and the need for frequent replacement, we should be able to choose long-living, upgradeable goods that have long warranties and can be efficiently repaired and recycled
- Electronics contain many toxic materials
- Monitors and televisions made with tubes (not flat panels) have between 4 and 8 pounds of lead in them. Most of the flat panel monitors and TV’s being recycled now contain less lead, but more mercury, from their mercury lamps. About 40% of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.
- Discarded Electronics Are Managed Badly = Most e-waste still goes in the landfill
- The EPA estimates that in 2011, the US generated nearly 3.4 million TONS of e-waste. But only about 25% of that was collected for recycling. The other 75% went to landfills and incinerators, despite the fact that hazardous chemicals in them can leach out of landfills into groundwater and streams, or that burning the plastics in electronics can emit dioxin.
- Most Recyclers Don’t Recycle, They Export
- And what about the 25% that is supposedly recycled? Most recycling firms take the low road, exporting instead of recycling. A large amount of e-waste that is collected for recycling is shipped overseas for dismantling under horrific conditions, poisoning the people, land, air, and water in China, other Asian nations and to Ghana and Nigeria in western Africa.
- When we drop off our old computers at an e-waste collection event, or have a recycler come and get them from our offices, we want to believe that the recycler is going to do the right thing: to reuse them if possible, and handle them in ways that are safe for workers and the environment. Electronics contain many toxic chemicals, and so a responsible recycler is one that is making sure that he – and the other vendors he may sell parts or materials to – is managing all aspects of the business as safely as possible..
- Global e-Waste Dumping
- The problem is that many electronics recyclers don’t actually recycle the electronics they collect from us. They can make more money by selling old electronic products to exporting waste traders than by processing it here in the U.S. Traders send it to developing countries where workers earn extremely low wages (often a few dollars per day) and where health and safety and environmental laws, enforcement, infrastructure and citizens’ rights are very weak.
- Simply stated, we are solving our e-waste problem by exporting it to poor countries around the globe.
Primitive Processing Contaminates Workers, Residents
In these countries, the e-waste ends up in backyard recycling operations, often literally behind peoples’ homes. One example is Guiyu, China, an area where a lot of our e-waste goes. They use crude and unsafe methods of taking apart our old computers and TVs to get to and remove the metals, which they can sell, causing great harm in the process. These dangerous practices include:
- Bashing open cathode ray tubes with hammers, exposing the toxic phosphor dust inside.
- Cooking circuit boards in woks over open fires to melt the lead solder, breathing in toxic lead fumes.
- Burning wires in open piles to melt away the plastics (to get at the copper inside).
- Burning the plastic casings, creating dioxins and furans – some of the most poisonous fumes you can breathe.
- Throwing the unwanted (but very hazardous) leaded glass into former irrigation ditches
- Dumping pure acids and dissolved heavy metals directly into their rivers.
- These horrific working conditions plus weak labor standards in China and many of the other developing countries where e-waste is sent, mean that women and children are often directly exposed to lead and other hazardous materials.
How much e-waste do we export each year?
There have been no rigorous studies of exactly how much e-waste we export to developing nations. Industry experts estimate that of the e-waste that recyclers collect, roughly 50-80 % of that ends up getting exported to developing nations. That would mean that we export enough e-waste each year to fill 5126 shipping containers (40 ft x 8.5 ft). If you stacked them up, they’d reach 8 miles high – higher than Mt Everest, or commercial flights.